Atlanta — Atlanta -- The first joke - at least one of the first - was launched minutes after Ohio State had outlasted both the officials and Georgetown in the first Final Four game at the Georgia Dome last night. The nightcap was yet to begin, but a rematch of the Bowl Championship Series football title game was now very likely.
"Just tell Ohio State," cracked an observer, "not to run the opening tip-off back for a touchdown."
Ted Ginn Jr. likely won't affect tomorrow night's national championship game between the Buckeyes and defending champ Florida. Then again, as it turned out, he didn't affect the BCS title game in Arizona that much, either. No one in Buckeyes garb did that night.
The 41-14 spanking the Gators administered was the most thorough butt-whupping in a college contest in 2007, or was until their basketball counterparts took on UCLA in the second national semifinal last night. Which, in turn, was worse than the pounding Florida gave UCLA in the final a year ago.
Watching the dismantling in his home in Southern California, John Wooden probably aged 10 more years. Until six minutes remained in the game, Wooden had scored as many points against Florida as the Bruins' All-America guard, Arron Afflalo, did.
You have to hope Afflalo and Georgetown's Jeff Green didn't go into the streets of Atlanta after the game trying to score dates, as much trouble as they both had scoring points yesterday.
Against Florida, Afflalo, the Pacific-10 Player of the Year, finished with 17 points, all in garbage time. Against Ohio State, Green, the Big East Player of the Year, scored nine, shooting only five times in 40 minutes.
NBA scouts had to have been scribbling mightily throughout the games, when they weren't picking their jaws off the floor at the performances of, respectively, Ohio State's Mike Conley Jr. and the foul-burdened Greg Oden and Florida's frontline beasts Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Chris Richard.
You couldn't find a more ideal title-game matchup: the defending champ, attempting a feat accomplished once in the past three decades and playing with a chip on its shoulder, against the team that (a lot of people have forgotten) went into the tournament No. 1 in the polls.
The biggest impression left by both winners last night was how they made their opponents look so bad, much worse than their presence in the Final Four would indicate. The Gators beat the Bruins at their game (suffocating defense, total tempo control) while excelling at their own (sheer talent and near-unrivaled chemistry).
The Gators players appear completely unmoved by the prospect of the Florida-Ohio State championship encore, having honed their own motivations long ago. "We're just excited to get another chance to play for a national championship," Florida guard Lee Humphrey said. "No matter who we play, it's going to be a tough matchup."
Ohio State's win wasn't as neat a package as Florida's. The officials, apparently as clueless as their NBA counterparts on how to call a game with legitimate, traditional centers, went overboard and forced the Buckeyes to operate without Oden for the last 17 minutes of the first half and the Hoyas without Roy Hibbert for significant stretches. A totally unnecessary challenge.
Thankfully for Ohio State, Conley stepped up in his teammate's absence the way Green never did for Georgetown. Conley controlled the pace, the speed, the game itself. Eleven of his 15 points came in the first half, when Oden had been ticky-tacked to the bench.
He was the most unguardable player in the game, a tall order (pun intended) considering who else was playing. Once Oden got back into the picture in the second half - even with Hibbert exerting his occasional influence - Ohio State never let its grip slip.
"We knew if we played a half-court game, we'd play into their hands," said Conley, who continued to make you forget he, like Oden, is a freshman. "They have a big frontcourt. They'd be blocking a lot of shots. We didn't want to have to deal with that. We wanted to play our style of game."
Green tried to do that for Georgetown, or so he claimed: "I didn't want to force anything, so I just took what they gave me." On this night, that was the wrong answer.
Oden, for example, took what he wanted, at least when the refs let him. In the second half, every time Ohio State made a run to halt one of Georgetown's spurts, it was because of Oden. He rattled off eight points in the first eight minutes of the half, road-blocked the Hoyas in the final minutes with his rebounding and shot-blocking, and in between gave everybody a wicked glimpse of his future with a swooping, from-the-free-throw-line dunk try in transition that drew a foul and barely rattled out.
Can he even think about trying that against Florida? Sure he can. Whether Noah, Horford and Richard will let him is another story. The three combined for 33 points and 32 rebounds against UCLA, blocked or altered Bruins shots left and right and reminded everybody of a basketball basic: You can't run, score or do much else if you don't have the ball.
Actually, that's a football basic, too, one the Buckeyes football team learned in January - the hard way.
David Steele -- Points after
It's a good year in college basketball - well, a better year, at least - when Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell and Dean Smith are on hand, in person, to be honored at the Final Four, and John Wooden is still able to watch UCLA (at home, at age 96) play in the semifinals.
Kentucky really, really believes it deserves a basketball coach as good as Florida's Billy Donovan. Because of the way it conducts itself, Kentucky really, really doesn't.
It might not be the worst thing in the world to have to miss seeing the Orioles' season opener ... against Johan Santana. Unless you're a sadist.