COLUMBUS, Ohio — The second-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes were well into their three-hour bus ride home from Wednesday night’s victory at Michigan. The TV sets in the luxury coach were tuned to No. 1 Duke’s game at Florida State.
Yet there was no celebration when the Blue Devils lost 66-61. Mostly there was silence.
“There wasn’t one word said,” coach Thad Matta said Friday. “Maybe it was 11:30 at night, but these guys were kind of like, ‘Hey, what are we going to do to beat Penn State?’ as they got off the bus. That’s what I love about this team.”
An odd mix of mostly seniors and freshmen, the Buckeyes don’t have ascending to No. 1 — they could get there by beating Penn State at home Saturday — as a priority.
“It’s early in the season,” said David Lighty, Ohio State’s sage veteran, shrugging his shoulders. “We’re 17-0 but there’s still a long way to go. We’re kind of looking at the bigger picture. I don’t think it’s something that’s getting to us. And that’s a good thing.”
Lighty has been there before, to put it mildly. He came in as part of the acclaimed “Thad Five” recruiting class led by 7-foot Greg Oden and lightning-quick point guard Mike Conley Jr. that went 35-4, finished the regular season ranked No. 1 and lost to Florida in the 2007 national championship game.
Since then the Buckeyes have constantly been in the top 10, even though the cast of characters has changed with several players jumping to the pros.
That big-picture focus apparently has been adopted by everyone from Lighty — who has an Ohio State record 112 victories on his resume — on down to the rookies.
“I don’t think it’s too hard to buy into, especially when you have (teammates like) Dave who have been through it already,” said Aaron Craft, the freshman point guard whose role seems to expand each game. “Obviously, Coach has as well. We have that great leadership, that great steady hand to keep us calm in any situation. We’re trying to stay focused, like Dave said, on the long run and not get caught up in where we are right now.”
Where they are is perfect through 17 games, including four Big Ten tests (three on the road against down teams but at tough venues — Indiana, Iowa and Michigan). Oh, and they waxed Florida State on its home court, 58-44, back on the last day of November.
They’ve done it with four returning starters supplemented by a solid group of first-year players led by Craft, Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas. The 6-9 Sullinger, who leads the team at 17.5 points and 10.1 rebounds a game, has been tabbed by some publications as the best player in the nation through the first half of the season. Craft runs the offense like a fifth-year senior and is a shutdown defender. Thomas comes off the bench tossing up shots and is the fifth Buckeye averaging in double figures at 10.1 points a game.
Yet no one seems to have a big ego.
Asked after the Michigan game about the Buckeyes’ gaudy record, Sullinger said, “It means nothing. You have to focus on the next game.”
Much of that stems from Matta, who never seems to take winning for granted even though he’s done a lot of it in his seven years in Columbus. He’s a sparkling 173-54 despite losing Oden, Conley, Daequan Cook, Kosta Koufos and B.J. Mullens to the NBA after just one season each, and last year’s consensus national player of the year, Evan Turner, a year early.
So if you think the Buckeyes are good now, just imagine how good they could be.
Matta doesn’t permit complacency or overconfidence.
“I haven’t heard or seen a sign of one guy saying, ‘I’m comfortable,’ or ‘This is awesome!’ or ‘We’re good’ — anything like that,” said the native of oh-so-appropriate Hoopeston, Ill. “They’ve been very attentive to detail and I like that. They probably read that off of me from that standpoint. It’s the old Bob Knight line: If what you did yesterday is important to you then you haven’t done — you can fill in the rest — today.”
Lighty has seen how the program has become a perpetual national contender. Hey, even he can dream about what could happen next.
“When you’re Ohio State, of course, everyone thinks of the Horseshoe and the great football tradition,” he said. “But I think it’s starting to kind of be a dual-sport school now. As we continue to get better and make history, things will hopefully change around and we’ll be up there competing with the football team on the same level nationally.”