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.”