Being No. 1 not a big priority with Buckeyes

The second-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes were on the bus ride home
from the airport after 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.”