The curious case of the Ohio State Buckeyes continued on Sunday when they slowly and methodically pulled away from a solid Michigan team to win 64-49 at home. Lacking much drama or many signature moments, it's the latest in a long string of comprehensive performances that will draw a collective "ho hum" from the masses. Instead, it should be considered the latest piece of evidence that the Buckeyes are one of the biggest threats to take down this season's NCAA title.
The Buckeyes-as-afterthought process started as early as last spring, when the news that projected lottery pick Jared Sullinger was returning for his sophomore season was swamped by the decisions of North Carolina's three stars to return to Chapel Hill. Add in Kentucky's annual haul of prodigious freshmen to go with Terrence Jones also electing to pass the lockout-threatened pro season, and Ohio State was third in both of the preseason polls, with just one first-place vote combined.
North Carolina vacated the throne when it lost by a point at Kentucky, but when Kentucky then lost at Indiana on the same day that Ohio State (sans Sullinger) lost at Kansas, the Buckeyes -- even with two commanding wins over top-10 teams -- were jumped by Syracuse and its shiny unbeaten record. When the Buckeyes then lost at Indiana by four, they somehow dropped four and five spots to No. 6/7 in the polls. A third defeat, this time at Illinois thanks to the outlier-of-all-outlier explosions from Brandon Paul, more or less pushed the Buckeyes into the shadow of the national conscience.
All of that is a shame and shows the foolishness of polls, because so far this season, Ohio State may be the best team in the nation. After polishing off Florida and Duke in nonconference play, the Buckeyes are absolutely destroying the nation's best and deepest conference.
Prior to this week's 24-point win over Penn State and today's 15-point slow-tempo triumph, the Buckeyes had far and away the best conference efficiency margin in the country. Per John Gasaway at Basketball Prospectus, Ohio State's margin of +0.28 points per possession was nearly double second-place Michigan State's +0.18 and was the only major-conference team above +0.20. That basically means that every four possessions in league games, Ohio State is scoring an extra point over their opponent, a rate that actually has grown after the victories over the Nittany Lions and Wolverines.
Indeed, elite teams show themselves by how many blowout victories they have, and Ohio State has won league games by 33, 31, 29, 17, 34, 24 and 15 points. Instead, people are deceived by the two league losses, both of which had an element of statistical fluke to them, to go with the loss at Kansas, when Sullinger was not available.
As of a couple weeks ago, the one legitimate question about the Buckeyes was whether their defense could hold up against legitimate competition. Outside of the Duke romp, OSU hadn't shown a true ability to shut down foes of comparable ability, which meant their margins for error (see: foul trouble at Indiana and Paul at Illinois) became slimmer. The Buckeyes have answered that to some extent in the past few games, first handcuffing the Hoosiers in the rematch, and Sunday holding a very efficient Wolverines attack to just 49 points on 58 possessions. The fact that Ohio State cruised past Michigan despite a quiet day from Sullinger and an overall mediocre offensive effort is a very good sign.
It would be nice to see Ohio State deliver one of these monster performances on the road, but you can say that about just about every national title contender this season. Until then, the Buckeyes can offer the college game's best low-post offensive threat, best on-ball defender at the point and a complementary cast of scorers and defenders that would be the envy of many starting lineups around the nation. Mix in an excellent, NCAA Tournament-tested coach and the fuel from last season's bitter Sweet 16 exit to Kentucky, and my preseason and midseason national champ pick looks primed to live up to that kind of billing.
It's true that no one gets credit for being No. 1 on Jan. 29, but it's curious why more people don't see Ohio State being there on April 2.