The work paid off Wednesday night at Value City Arena. After squeaking out a 73-68 victory in Iowa City 15 days ago, the Buckeyes held the Hawkeyes to a season-low 48 points in a 70-48 victory and credited their defense for the turnaround.
"It was our game plan to come in and play defense for 40 minutes," said senior forward David Lighty, who also led all scorers with 18 points. "It's something we haven't been doing lately. At the beginning on the year we were playing great team defense and we've been slacking for the last few weeks. This week was preparing to play the real Ohio State defense."
The Buckeyes (19-0, 6-0 Big Ten) harassed Iowa (7-11, 0-6) into committing a season-high 23 turnovers that were turned into 20 points at the other end. Leading those efforts was reserve Aaron Craft, who set an OSU freshman record with seven steals.
Craft also handed out four assists but committed five turnovers himself, focusing on the final stat more than anything else after the game.
"That's a team stat," he said of the steals. "Everyone is in the gaps putting pressure on the ball and putting indecision in the ball handlers' mind. I just happened to get the stat tonight."
Unlike the last time these two played, the final outcome was never in doubt. The Buckeyes scored the first six points of the game, and after Iowa pulled to within two at 6-4 the home team put together a 14-4 run to push the lead to 12 points with exactly 11 minutes remaining in the half.
From there, the visitors got no closer than seven points the rest of the way. The Buckeyes also committed a season-high 20 turnovers, a fact Lighty said must change if they are to be successful on the road Saturday against No. 23 Illinois.
Head coach Thad Matta said it was the one part of the game that disappointed him.
"Offensively the 20 turnovers is way too many," he said. "We weren't as sharp as we needed to be on the offensive end of taking care of the basketball. We need shots at the basket, we don't' need to give it back. We've got to get that corrected. It hasn't been a problem all year."
OSU entered the game averaging 10.7 turnovers per game, the 14th-lowest total in the nation.
The fast start was in part due to beleaguered senior forward Dallas Lauderdale, who had seen a total of 16 minutes of action in the team's last two games. He remained in the starting lineup and was directly involved with OSU's first six points of the evening.
After the teams traded turnovers to open the game – a sign of things to come – and each missed a shot, junior guard William Buford drew the defense and found a wide-open Lauderdale, who dunked it home. Iowa countered with a missed trey from Bryce Cartwright, and this time it was freshman Jared Sullinger who got Lauderdale involved.
Sullinger also drew a double team and passed out of it, finding Lauderdale for another dunk. Another Iowa turnover later and Lauderdale's offensive rebound of a Sullinger miss led to a pair of Buford free throws.
Typically the first player head coach Thad Matta substitutes for each game, Lauderdale remained in at the first media timeout. Instead, it was Buford who was replaced by Craft.
"He hurts you … when he hides around the basket, catches and dunks," Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery said. "It wasn't like they were going to him. He scores as a byproduct of so much other offensive talent."
With the Buckeyes ahead 33-19 with 4:40 remaining in the first half, the next several possessions resembled a track meet gone wrong. After Lighty came up with a steal, Jon Diebler pushed it up the court and threw a bounce pass through the paint that evaded William Buford's hands and bounced off his face and out of bounds.
The Hawkeyes countered with a missed jumper from Bryce Cartwright, but Lighty was whistled for a charge at the opposite end after he drove the basket and dished to the perimeter. Andrew Brommer was waiting and drew the foul, but Lighty got his revenge one possession later when he drew the same call as Brommer drove the basket.
That stretch lasted all of 30 seconds and brought both teams to the under-4 timeout. Lighty got things back on track on the ensuing possession when he caught the ball at the right wing, spied an opening and drove baseline before throwing down a powerful one-handed dunk to make the score 35-19 in favor of the home team.
It was a microcosm of the first half between the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes: an impressive play by a Buckeye interspersed with moments of sloppy play at both ends.
Buford had 15 points and Sullinger added 13 points and nine rebounds. Brommer led the Hawkeyes with 12 points.
OSU led 40-23 at the break and no Iowa player had scored more than six points although 10 had seen action. Eight Buckeyes played in the first half with seven of them scoring at least two points.
The 40 points marked the highest first-half scoring total for the Buckeyes since they put up 46 in the opening stanza of their Big Ten opener Dec. 31 against Indiana.
OSU also succeeded in its first game as the nation's top-ranked team.
"From our point of view nothing really has been different at all," Lighty said. "We approached the game the same way. We're just worried about us and getting better."