It’s not the fact that Ohio State enters Saturday's game against North Carolina as an underdog that is unusual. The Buckeyes haven’t been nationally ranked at any point during the last two seasons, while the Tar Heels are the reigning national champions.
But what makes this Ohio State team unique is the fact that, for once, it’s one that the casual fan is starting to get behind. After the hardships of the past few seasons punctuated by a surprising coaching change during the summer, the Buckeyes have transformed themselves into a team that is becoming fun to watch because it plays hard and it plays together.
As long as that lasts, coach Chris Holtmann said he can understand why the feedback from fans — die-hard and casual alike — has been positive.
“People like our older guys and they like the influx of some of these new guys that have brought a personality,” Holtmann said after Tuesday’s win against The Citadel. “It’s made our team more interesting, and I think people have sensed that right now it has pretty good chemistry. We’ll go through some difficult moments for sure, but I think that I have sensed that people have enjoyed watching this relatively new team and new group forge an identity.”
Winning certainly helps that. The Buckeyes have won five straight entering Saturday, and they’ve done it by blistering Wisconsin on the road, overcoming a 20-point deficit to Michigan and avoiding a slip-up against a mid-major foe like they did in each of the last two seasons.
In many ways, this feels ahead of schedule. In a preseason poll of Big Ten writers conducted jointly by the Dispatch and the Athletic, Ohio State was predicted to finish 11th in the conference. Just one player — senior Jae’Sean Tate — received a single vote for preseason all-league honors.
Thursday, Tate said the players can sense that the national perception is this team is becoming a feel-good story.
“I just think that’s from us being able to string some (wins) together and the way we play on the court, playing for each other and playing hard,” he said, “and also just the curiosity of how this team could be.”
But in the same breath, Tate discounted the narrative of Ohio State being the underdog.
“No matter who we play, our preparation is going to be the same,” he said. “We want to string (wins) together until we look up and we’ve done enough to get into the (NCAA) Tournament.”
It was worth noting that, as the Buckeyes beat The Citadel on Tuesday night, former point guard JaQuan Lyle was in attendance. He quit the team during the spring.
His appearance made Holtmann’s postgame comments even more interesting.
“If you have a few moments, a few games where you don’t come out with effort or you have poor body language or you quit because things get hard or your get down, then that (positive) sentiment can change,” he said. “It’s on us for it not to.”