But can the Buckeyes defend for a full 40 minutes?
That was the question 12,940 OSU loyalists left Value City Arena with following a way-too-close-for-comfort 85-75 win over visiting Belmont Wednesday night.
The Buckeyes (6-0) had to work much harder than they did in Monday night's 92-59 laugher against Norfolk State. They were extended deep into the second half by a Belmont team from the lightly regarded Atlantic Sun that just elevated to the Division I-A level five years ago after years of success on the NAIA circuit.
OSU enjoyed a comfortable 36-24 halftime lead. But the Bruins (3-4) went on a 22-9 run to start the second half and briefly wrest away the lead at 48-47 with 13:28 left. Belmont later knotted the game at 55-55 with 9:20 left.
But Ohio State stepped it up at the defensive end and, with a spate of transition baskets, grabbed control of the game late.
"Tonight, it was evident that we were exhausted," said OSU coach Thad Matta, whose team won for the third time in five days. "We couldn't come up with a loose ball or a rebound. We had to find the guys who were going to make the plays down the stretch."
J.J. Sullinger led the Buckeyes with 23 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals.
"I am very happy for James," Matta said. "He's a guy in practice if we go for three hours, he's nonstop for three hours. We have asked him to do some different things. He has accepted the challenge and taken great pride at it."
Sullinger notched his second career double-double and made a robust 10 of 13 shots from the floor.
"I have just been constantly trying to stay consistent," Sullinger said. "I have been trying to go to the boards every time. I sat down with the coaches last year and watched the film. They showed me that when I went to the boards good things happened. I try to go every time. The ball just bounces my way sometimes."
Je'Kel Foster added 18 points, four rebounds and three steals for OSU. Jamar Butler tallied 12 points and seven assists. Ron Lewis chipped in 11 points and four rebounds.
It was an off night for OSU center Terence Dials, who finished with four points and seven rebounds. Dials, 0 for 7 from the floor, failed to score a field goal for the first time since going for 0 for 1 from the floor as a freshman in a Feb. 6, 2002, loss at Wisconsin – a string of 84 straight games.
"I don't want to say he was frustrated," Sullinger said of Dials. "His shots were just not falling for him. The baskets he usually gets, he wasn't getting them. He's just happy we won. He's not down on himself. Tomorrow, he will come back and play hard."
Matta is counting on that.
"He just didn't have the energy," Matta said. "We definitely have got to get Terence back and playing at the level he is capable of playing. We need him at his best for us to play our best basketball."
Andy Wicke led Belmont with 21 points, while Josh Goodwin tallied 14. Belmont was 10 of 18 on three-pointers. With Dials sidled with some foul problems, Belmont outrebounded OSU 34-30. The Bruins hit 55.6 percent of their three-point shots (10 of 18).
"I thought Belmont was a carbon copy of Butler, with the exception that they do try to throw the ball inside," Matta said. "We knew where we wanted to be defensively. We just didn't get there.
"I think Belmont is a good basketball team. Hopefully, this will be a good RPI game for us. I think they're going to win a lot of basketball games."
After Belmont scored the first basket of the game, Ohio State scored the next 13 points to take a 13-2 lead. Sullinger hit a baseline jumper and a three-pointer to get it started. Sylvester then canned a three off a feed from Sullinger before Butler added a trey of his own. Sylvester capped the run with a one-handed shot on a drive down the lane to put OSU up 13-2 with 15:29 left in the half.
The Buckeyes pushed ahead 26-12 on Sylvester Mayes' trey with 10:05 left in the half. Belmont trimmed the gap down to 26-20 as Goodwin made a jumper in the land and a driving layup and Justin Hare converted a long OSU miss into a layup with 8:42 left in the half.
But OSU outscored Belmont 12-6 over the remainder of the half. Butler and Lewis each splashed threes before Matt Terwilliger converted a Mayes pass into a layup for a 38-24 lead with 28 seconds left in the half. Belmont's Matthew Dotson tipped in a miss with 1.8 seconds left to cut the halftime lead to 38-26.
Belmont came out of the gates strong to open the second half, outscoring OSU 22-9 over the first seven minutes to wrest away the lead. The Bruins connected on 4 of 5 three-point tries during this stretch as Goodwin hit a pair of threes. Andy Wicke capped the game-changing run as he picked off a loose ball OSU's Mayes had tipped and laid it in for a 48-47 Belmont lead with 13:28 left.
Matta called timeout eight seconds later, and OSU responded as Sullinger got a layup off a nice feed from Butler to give OSU a 49-48 lead with 12:55 left. But Belmont's three-point barrage continued as Keaton Belcher swished one from the top to cut it to 55-53. Then, after Lewis was whistled for a charge, Belmont's Boomer Herndon scored inside to tie the game at 55-55 with 9:20 left.
But Ohio State answered the call. Foster and Butler each canned three-pointers to give the Buckeyes some breathing room. That started OSU on an 18-4 run that helped the Buckeyes grab control.
That run was capped by 10 straight OSU points. Dials made 1 of 2 free throws with 6:24 left for his first point of the night. Sullinger then had a breakaway jam off a Foster steal and a Butler halfcourt outlet pass. Sullinger then stole a rebound away from Belmont's Brian Collins, laid it in and was fouled. He made the free throw. Butler then fed Sullinger for a layup on the fast break. Lewis' driving layup with 4:08 left capped the run and gave OSU a 73-59 lead.
"We came together," said Foster, who had two key steals during that run. "We knew we had to string some stops together. They were making a run. We had to find some way to slow them down. Those two steals came at the right time."
Wicke made back-to-back three-pointers to cut the lead to 73-65 with 3:32 left. Herndon got it down to six at 81-75 after scoring off a lob with 31.6 seconds left. But Lewis and Sullinger each made a pair of free throws in the final 28.6 seconds to ice it.
* Terwilliger added eight points. Matt Sylvester added seven points, while Mayes joined Dials with three points.
* The Buckeyes are 6-0 for the first time since 2001-02, when OSU opened up 6-0. OSU also had 6-0 starts in 1991-92 and 1998-99. The last time they had a better start than that was 1990-91, when OSU opened up 17-0.
* OSU is now 96-22 all-time in VCA, including 5-0 this year.
* OSU is now 26-12 under Matta, including a record of 20-2 at home.
* The Buckeyes visit Iowa State Saturday at 8 p.m. (ESPN). That game, which will be played off-campus in Des Moines, Iowa, will close a stretch of four games in eight days for the Buckeyes.
Iowa State, 6-2 overall, is coming off a 72-60 win over Iowa, although the Hawkeyes played that game without starting guard Jeff Horner.