Buckeyes Could Draw Even With Historic Team

David Lighty has seen a lot of basketball during his Ohio State career. As the lone holdover on the court from the program's last Final Four team, the fifth-year senior is seeing similarities between this year's team and that one. With 21 straight wins to open the season and the nation's No. 1 ranking, he is not the only one.

A win on Saturday would put No. 1 Ohio State in the same league as the team they have been compared to since the season began.

The last undefeated team in the nation, the Buckeyes will travel to Northwestern in search of their 22nd straight victory. Achieving that would put this year's team in a tie for the longest winning streak during head coach Thad Matta's seven years at the helm.

The other team to put together such a streak was the 2006-07 Buckeyes, which rode a talented freshman class and experienced group of seniors to a berth in the national championship game.

When he was first asked to compare this year's team to the 2006-07 squad – all the way back on Oct. 14, nearly a full month before the first game of the year – Matta pointed out that that squad had to replace more players.

The team that reached the Final Four was minus four seniors who led the Buckeyes to a surprise Big Ten title: J.J. Sullinger, Matt Sylvester, Terence Dials and Je'Kel Foster. This season, the Buckeyes had to replace just one starter, but it was a big one: reigning national player of the year Evan Turner.

But following his team's 23 point loss to the Buckeyes on Tuesday night, Purdue head coach Matt Painter said he felt this year's OSU squad shares a number of characteristics of that Final Four team from four years ago. One of them is David Lighty, a freshman on that team and a fifth-year senior on this one.

"There's a lot of comparisons, especially how we play defense and hold the paint down on the defensive end and how we're shooting the ball and playing inside-out," Lighty said. "That's making it real hard for teams to key on one person."

While a number of the parts are similar, two key positions have drawn comparisons all season long. Freshmen Jared Sullinger (forward/center) and Aaron Craft (point guard) have been compared by head coach Thad Matta to NBA hall-of-famers Karl Malone and John Stockton, but Buckeye fans see shades of Greg Oden and Michael Conley Jr. in them.

That OSU team featured a future first-round NBA draft pick in Daequan Cook who came off the bench for the Buckeyes. He finished fourth on the team with an average of 9.8 points per game.

"That says something about their talent and their skill," Painter said. "They did more ball screen action with that group than they do with this group even though they do it at times. They had shooters."

This year, Cook's role falls to DeShaun Thomas, who is averaging 9.7 points.

Sullinger presents a different skill set than Oden, who led the team in scoring at 15.7 points and 9.6 rebounds per game despite missing the first seven contests after undergoing offseason wrist surgery. Still to this day Matta points out that OSU fans never saw Oden's true potential due to the injured wrist.

As the Buckeyes prepared for a Dec. 18 contest against South Carolina, Matta said he was asked about the comparisons by a former member of his staff. John Groce, who took over as the head coach at Ohio following the 2007-08 season after arriving at OSU with Matta, called his former boss and asked him if the squads were comparable.

"It's a different dimension," was Matta's response. "Greg missed the first seven games and then we changed the way we were playing and we went through some adjustments of saying, ‘Hey, I know you used to do this…' This team being together (all year), I think roles are more determined for these guys."

As a unit, Lighty said high expectations can derail a team that must assimilate a large number of freshmen into the lineup. In the early going, the fifth-year senior said he felt this year's team had a similar temperament to that Final Four squad.

"It could've (held us back), but with the players that we have everyone is team first and wanting to win, knowing that we have the opportunity in front of us to make it all the way to the national championship," he said of his freshman season. "I think that's what helped us. Everyone could've said, ‘I want to do this, I want to do that.' If that would've happened, we probably wouldn't' have ended up where we did.

"You've got to stay hungry. You can't get a big head and think you've arrived when you haven't yet."

Sullinger is averaging a double-double at 17.8 points and 10.0 boards per game. Meanwhile Craft, who does not start but is Matta's first substitution, is averaging 6.5 points and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of plus-2.15. Conley's totals were 11.3 and plus-2.77, respectively.

So while the statistics might be a bit off, this season's duo has at least one thing in common with Oden and Conley: a history of winning. Both sets of players were AAU teammates and won multiple national championships in high school, helping to prepare them to handle the pressures of winning on the big stage.

"In AAU, we were always the top-notch team," Sullinger said. "We won three national championships in a row. After we won our first, we realized we had a target on our chests. As freshmen, we are used to it. We know we've got to play our best day in and day out."

The downfall of that team's success was the loss of Oden, Cook and Conley to the NBA, the start of a trend that saw five freshmen leave the Buckeyes in three seasons. Although Oden and Cook were widely viewed as one-and-done players upon their arrival in Columbus, the departure of Conley created a void that Painter said he feels Matta is just now starting to fill.

"The thing that Thad has done a great job with is he's had to adjust," the Purdue coach said. "He's had some guys leave after one year and he's had to adjust. I still think he finally got caught up to Mike Conley leaving. Now he has that right now in Aaron Craft."

This year's team is also the first since the 2006-07 squad to ascend to the No. 1 spot in the national polls.

As it stands, the 21-game winning streak is the fourth of at least 20 games in program history. A 22nd win to open the season would tie this group with the 1961-62 squad for the second-best such streak in OSU history.

The record for wins to start a season belongs to the 1960-61 team, which opened with 27 straight victories before suffering its only loss of the season to Cincinnati in the national championship game. That run was part of a 32-game winning streak that began at the end of the previous season, the only time the Buckeyes won a national championship.

While he is enjoying a prominent role on the nation's top team approaching the midway point of the Big Ten season, Lighty said success now means nothing without much more success later.

"There's a lot of potential that I see, especially from being on so many different teams and being in this position before of having a good start," he said. "I'm a little bit excited about it but not too excited. I know how things can turn out. I've been on the bad end of the end of the season."

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