The downside to scheduling the toughest nonconference stretch of Chris Holtmann’s career was the licks Ohio State men’s basketball could take before entering league play, the Buckeyes’ head coach said early in the season.
But it’s been Ohio State dishing out all the punishment heading into its second game of Big Ten play against Minnesota, and its historically tough opponents ducking for cover in what has quickly snowballed into the Buckeyes’ best start in nearly a decade.
“Last year, our offense was, we all know, it was pretty one dimensional,” Holtmann said. “We didn’t get to the foul line enough. We didn’t have enough diversity in the ways we could attack people. So hopefully the increase in some of the diversity in our lineup will affect that.”
It has so far.
Shooting up the ranks from a preseason No. 18 to No. 3 in five weeks — and likely moving up following No. 1 Louisville’s loss to Texas Tech — Ohio State is just the fourth team ever to defeat two top 10 opponents by 25 or more points in the same season, with wins against Villanova and North Carolina.
The three other teams to do it — Villanova in 2015-16, Duke in 2000-01 and UCLA in 1967-68 — each raised a national championship banner at the end of the year.
The Buckeyes’ blistering 60 percent shooting night against then-No. 10 Villanova in the third game of the season, including 57 percent from 3, appeared an aberration given slow offensive starts in the two previous games.
But a 45-point second half offensive explosion at then-No. 7 North Carolina in Chapel Hill three weeks later added to the notion that this Buckeye team may have the chance to stick around the upper echelon of the AP poll.
“We’re talking about that outside noise, a lot with being on social media every day, you’re seeing a lot about us right now,” junior forward Kyle Young said. “So it’s really trying to keep the same mentality we had in the summer coming in. We know what we got. We got to show people what we got.”
A season ago, when Holtmann’s team reached conference play, it kickstarted a five-game losing streak that quickly dropped the Buckeyes from No. 14 to unranked. In this past Saturday’s Big Ten opener against Penn State, though, Ohio State hung 100 on a conference opponent for the first time in 13 years.
It’s been nearly that long since Ohio State has had a start this good, and it’s not just winning nine straight games that makes this one stand out.
Six seasons ago, former point guard Aaron Craft and the Buckeyes were in a similar position, ranked No. 3 for several weeks from mid-December to January during a 15-game winning streak. The difference is that team played just one ranked opponent during that stretch — No. 17 Marquette — which finished unranked with a 17-15 record.
The next ranked team they faced was No. 5 Michigan State, which handed the Buckeyes their first of four straight losses, and five out of six. Ohio State began March unranked, and was bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to an underdog Dayton team.
The 2011-12 Buckeyes won their first eight behind wins against No. 7 Florida and No. 3 Duke, but lost to their next two ranked opponents, adding blemishes to their early resume that the 2019 team doesn’t yet have. That team got to the Final Four before dropping to Kansas by two points.
The team the current Buckeyes are chasing is the 2010-11 iteration, led by Jared Sullinger, which won its first 24 games, including four against ranked opponents. It lost just three games all season.
Then-head coach Thad Matta’s team never dropped below its preseason No. 4 ranking, and finished No. 1 in the Associated Press poll prior to postseason play. Ohio State won the Big Ten Tournament, but was upset by Kentucky in the Sweet 16.
“Everyone has their thoughts on what we were gonna accomplish this year, and we haven’t accomplished anything. It’s December,” sophomore guard Duane Washington said. “We’re talking now. We want to hopefully be talking in March and so on.”
Holtmann’s Buckeyes are months away from NCAA Tournament aspirations, but they are amid arguably Ohio State’s best start to a season in nine years.
In order to keep it rolling against Minnesota Sunday at 6:30 p.m., Ohio State will have to do something no team has done so far this season: win a Big Ten game on the road.