Ten games, 10 wins for the Buckeyes, who are now knocking on the door of the nation's No. 1 ranking. Ohio State again took care of business with a 79-62 win over North Dakota State on Saturday, but are they really one of the nation's best teams? Ben Axelrod explores.
Some final thoughts from Ohio State's 79-62 win over North Dakota State, just as soon as everybody switches over from Youngstown Boys
"You know, in the coaches' poll they had one first place vote. Guess who that first-place vote was. Didn't change my mind tonight." - North Dakota State head coach Saul Phillips
I'm gonna start with an apology to Lenzelle Smith Jr. Earlier this season I incorrectly stated, "Lenzelle is who he is. I'm not going to ask for any sort of consistency from him, because in three years, we've never gotten it." Well 10 games into the 2013-14 season, we're getting it. Smith was again the Buckeyes' leading scorer on Saturday, marking the second consecutive game that he's been just that. The senior guard has reached double-digit scoring in each of the past six game, unprecedented consistency for Smith in his college career. At this point, I'm comfortable trusting Smith on the offensive end of the floor, and given the way in which he gets his points, Smith scoring means that the Buckeyes are at their best.
It may go without saying, but Ohio State is also at its very best when LaQuinton Ross is scoring, and the junior guard matched Smith with 18 points against the Bison. In Ross' last five games, he's now scored 18, nine, 23, 20, and 17 points, effectively ending the five-game shooting slump that he started this season out on. With Smith and Ross' ability from outside the arc, the Buckeyes become a very dangerous team when each are hitting their shots, and both players have done just that for the better part of the last month.
Believe it our not, NDSU is actually a pretty good team, and according to RPI rankings, the Bison are the best that the Buckeyes have played so far this season. That may say more about OSU's schedule than it does NDSU, but Marshall Bjorklund did score 26 points in the Bison's upset win over Notre Dame, and Ohio State managed to hold him to 12 points on Saturday. The Buckeyes can only play who's put in front of them, and regardless of the level of competition that they've faced, they remain undefeated 10 games into the season.
As you're probably aware of by now, Aaron Craft set Ohio State's career assists record on Saturday, dishing seven dimes against the Bison to bring his total to 581. The previous record was 579 and held by Jamar Butler, although both players may have caught a break when Mike Conley Jr. decided to go pro after his first season in Columbus. Just 10 games into his senior season, Craft has plenty of time -- roughly 30 games -- to add to his all-time mark, not to mention that he already holds the school's all-time steals record.
We've asked Thad Matta roughly 283 times over the past three and a half years what Craft means to Ohio State, and this is what he had to say on Saturday: "It's hard to put into words, in my opinion, just in terms of what Aaron has meant to this program, to this university. Anytime that somebody breaks a record, if you're a true sports fan, you sit down and say, 'Okay, let me think about who he just passed.' And you think about all the great players who have played at this university, for him to be the leader in two -- steals and assists -- I think it tells you just the type of basketball player that he is."
This may seem like hyperbole, and maybe it's some of the same stuff we said about David Lighty just a few years ago, but enjoy the rest of this season with Craft at the Buckeyes' helm. Players like him don't come around often.
I'd be remiss not to mentionMarc Loving, who scored a career high 12 points against NDSU. Loving looked particularly aggressive, perhaps the most he has in his young college career, and it showed in his stat line. Despite being a freshman, the Toledo native has displayed an ability to play within himself, and despite shrinking minutes, his productivity has remained efficient. Matta has admitted that Loving has been gaining confidence in recent weeks, and while I'm skeptical about how much a part of this rotation he'll remain come Big Ten play, I see big things for him in his college career.
Had a great exchange in postgame interviews when the players were asked if they got to watch some basketball during the day, and Ross responded by stating that he watched some of Michigan and Arizona. I asked Ross who he was rooting for, considering the Wolverines are his rival, but it's the Wildcats standing in the way of a No. 1 ranking for the Buckeyes. His response? "I was kind of rooting for Michigan, I'm not going to lie. Knowing that they had to beat Arizona, we probably would have moved up again."
Craft and Smith both immediately jumped on Ross for admitting this, with Craft stating, "I think he means That Team Up North" and Smith joking that he was banned from talking to the media. Nonetheless, it was a cool moment of honesty from Ross, and a sign that Ohio State's rise in the rankings is something that's on the mind of at least a few of the players.
Which brings us to this: are the Buckeyes worthy of a No. 1 ranking? Even a week ago, I would've said no. I thought Ohio State's rapid rise to a top-3 spot was more of a result of overreacting pollsters than it was the Buckeyes' actual resume. Now? I'm starting to come around. Ohio State's defense is legit -- the best in the nation according to some rankings -- and the offense is coming around. The Buckeyes have topped the 50 percent shooting mark in the past five games, and with Ross and Smith coming alive, they're as good as any team in the nation. Questions still exist -- particularly can they keep it up offensively? And can Amir William shoulder the load in the post for a full season? -- but the more I see, the more I like from this Ohio State team, which is trending in the right direction with Big Ten play right around the corner.