Defense, togetherness, focus drive No. 1 Buckeyes
As gaudy as that 22-0 record is for top-ranked Ohio State, the Buckeyes aren't thinking they possess a secret formula that no one else has.
''We haven't found something that hasn't been found before,'' coach Thad Matta said with a chuckle on Wednesday. ''That's for sure.''
Heading into a home game on Thursday night against rival Michigan, the Buckeyes (22-0, 9-0 Big Ten) have matched the second-best start in the program's 112 years. A win over the Wolverines (13-9, 3-6), and the only standard left is the 27-0 run by the 1961-62 Buckeyes of Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek.
The current Buckeyes have won big, like in an 87-64 rout of then-No. 12 Purdue last week. Boilermakers coach Matt Painter said after that landslide, ''We got five or six calls in the second half that were mercy calls. It really should have been about 30 or 40 points (difference).''
They've also won tight games, such as Saturday's 58-57 escape at Northwestern on Saturday. And in a way, they've impressed more people with their ability to win the close ones.
''They're 9-0 in the conference and I think six of their wins were by five points (or fewer),'' Wildcats coach Bill Carmody said. ''They find a way to win. ... I give them credit. They're winning all these close games and that's usually what good teams do.''
Matta was asked what it is about his team, which is 7-0 on the road and has won on the last four trips by a combined 15 points, that allows them to pull games out of the fire.
''Coaching,'' he cracked, quickly adding, ''No, don't write that.''
They have lots of things going for them. For instance, 6-foot-9 freshman Jared Sullinger has been a beast inside. The opposition hasn't figured out a way to stop him with one player. He's averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds a game, and draws lots and lots of fouls.
So when the other team invariably doubles down on him, that frees up one of Ohio State's many excellent perimeter shooters - 3-point specialist Jon Diebler, jump shooters David Lighty and William Buford, point guard Aaron Craft or shot-happy Deshaun Thomas. Those last two, like Sullinger, are freshmen.
Penn State elected to throw an extra defender at the wide-body Sullinger - and Craft lit up the Nittany Lions for a career-best 19 points to go with seven assists.
''(Sullinger) is a tough kid to play one on one in the post,'' Nittany Lions coach Ed DeChellis said. ''You have to pick your poison and who are you going to leave open? I don't want to leave those other guys. So we tried to leave (Craft) and he made the shots.''
Ask the Buckeyes what sets them apart, and they have a quick response.
''Defense. Absolutely,'' said Buford, a guy who admits he had only a passing knowledge of how to guard someone before encountering Matta's ''earn playing time with your defense'' philosophy.
Everybody else seems to have bought in, as well.
''They got us off to a slow start,'' Iowa's Fran McCaffery said after his team was drilled 70-48 at Ohio State on Jan. 19. ''You go on the road, you play a team of this caliber, you need to get off to a good start offensively. You need to get some type of flow. We never had a flow. Every basket we got in the first half was a struggle.''
The Buckeyes all point to another factor in their streak: They like each other.
''I love these guys, honestly. This team is something special,'' said Sullinger, already listed as a top-10 pick if he were to decide to become the sixth Ohio State freshman in the last five years to jump to the NBA. ''A lot of people don't know what we do behind closed doors, in the locker room. We play ping pong a lot. We watch TV. We just hang out. With the connection we've got and the way we act off the court, it really carries onto the court. It's a special bond between all of us.''
No Division I team has gone through a season unbeaten since Indiana went 37-0 in 1975-76. There's a long way to go before the Buckeyes can even be mentioned in the same sentence with coach Bob Knight's Hoosiers of Scott May and Kent Benson.
After Michigan - which only lost to the Buckeyes 68-64 on Jan. 12 - come four mammoth tests: at No. 18 Minnesota on Sunday, at No. 19 Wisconsin on Feb. 12, down but dangerous Michigan State at home on Feb. 15 and at No. 11 Purdue on Feb. 20.
Matta says there is a skill to winning close games, playing well in unfriendly environments and staring down big-time opponents.
''That's kind of why we try to recruit kids who come from winning programs," he said, "because there's nights where you're not playing well, shots aren't going in and you've got to lock down and defend."
So far, so good.
''These guys are smart enough to know that if we don't come to play, if we're not tuned into what we need to do, we'll lose," he said. "It's probably as simple as that.''