Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann has blown by Iowa’s Tom Davis (6-0) and Bucky O’Connor (5-0) and Minnesota’s O.B. “Ozzie” Cowles (5-0) like LeBron blowing past Steph Curry, becoming the first men's basketball coach in 95 years to start 7-0 in his debut at a Big Ten school.
It’s OK to pick your jaw off the floor. I just did.
Now the can-this-be-happening continues. Can Holtmann and the Buckeyes catch Iowa’s Sam Berry, who went 11-0 to open conference play in 1923; and Wisconsin’s Walter Meanwell, who was 12-0 in 1912?
Why not? Ohio State already has achieved more than most expected. What’s a handful more wins against mediocre Big Ten teams?
To wit: The rested Buckeyes (16-4, 7-0) play Minnesota on Saturday in Madison Square Garden in New York. The Golden Gophers (14-7, 3-5) have lost three of their past four and are making a quick turnaround after losing by 11 at Maryland on Thursday night. Young legs replenish quickly; young attitudes, not so much. Chalk up consecutive conference win No. 8 for Ohio State.
Nebraska visits Value City Arena on Monday, and although the Cornhuskers (14-7, 5-3) join the Buckeyes as one of the Big Ten’s surprise teams, don’t expect OSU’s streak to end. Win No. 9 is in the bag.
Penn State arrives Thursday. Win No. 10. (See how easy this is?)
Then things get stickier. Indiana comes to town Jan. 30 for Ohio State’s third straight home game (advantage Buckeyes), but the Hoosiers are improving and are coached by former OSU assistant Archie Miller. Two things about Miller: He probably would have sought the Ohio State job after OSU fired his good friend Thad Matta, had Miller not already jumped from Dayton to Indiana.
In other words, this one is personal. And does anyone named Archie ever lose in Columbus?
Still, I like the Buckeyes to get No. 11 because Ohio State is making up for a lack of Final Four talent with a Daniel Day-Lewis adherence to role play. As long as the Buckeyes remain in character, they will be a tough out no matter the Big Ten opponent.
Which brings us to Illinois and win No. 12 (good for 21 overall, easily securing a spot in the NCAA Tournament). The Illini traveled Friday to Wisconsin as the best 0-6 team in the history of the Big Ten — so say a variety of media pundits — which is like claiming 10 below zero feels significantly warmer than 12 below. Hey, whatever you want to believe.
I’m not saying Illinois can’t upset the Buckeyes, who will be 15-1 at home by the time this game is played Feb. 4; I am saying that even though the Illini meant well, it’s time for Meanwell to make room for Holtmann on the basketball bench of history.
After that, Ohio State visits Purdue on Feb. 7. The Boilermakers, who are 18-2 and 7-0, are legit. But so are the Buckeyes. How can that be? The explanations are plentiful, from addition by roster subtraction, to a new sheriff in town.
The upperclassmen saw Holtmann’s hiring as both a fresh start and a scary unknown. They no longer could fall back on receiving the relational benefit of the doubt from Matta. Also, there is the emergence of Keita Bates-Diop and the previously mentioned uptick in filling roles to near perfection.
As way of further explanation, it must be said that the Big Ten lacks top-to-bottom depth. The conference might be stronger at the bottom than it had been of late, but it also is soft in the middle and thin at the top, especially given Michigan State’s recent woes.
That does not diminish the Buckeyes’ undefeated start. After all, it’s not the first time the conference has been average. This is more about Ohio State being above-average for a change.
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