The first time Chris Holtmann used the word to describe a game this season, it came across as an apology to the well-respected coach he had defeated.

Ranked No. 16 at the time, Ohio State had just blown past No. 10 Villanova and coach Jay Wright with a 76-51 win in the third game of the season. After the Buckeyes came out hot and never let up, Holtmann called it a “unique” game given the outcome and the quality of the opponent.

Then, after Ohio State throttled lowly Stetson in its next game, building a 42-14 halftime lead and winning by 35 points, Holtmann brought the word out again. It resurfaced after last Wednesday’s win at North Carolina, and once more when the Buckeyes opened Big Ten play with a 106-74 bashing of visiting Penn State.

That’s four games out of Ohio State’s first nine, each of them noteworthy in some fashion. Holtmann doesn’t like to draw conclusions from small sample sizes, and he’ll be the first to tell you that less than one-third of a regular season does not a national-title contender make.

But it’s becoming more difficult to ignore the mounting evidence that this could be a unique season for Ohio State.

“We’ve had a really special start,” Holtmann said Saturday after the win over the Nittany Lions. “I’m not trying to diminish winning nine games and some of our performances. I just think it’s a long season and we’re going to run into some issues.”

Whenever those issues arise, they will come for a team that has now climbed to the No. 3 national ranking for its first top-five appearance since it was No. 3 in January 2014. Ohio State received five first-place votes Monday — one more than No. 2 Kansas — marking the first time that’s happened for the Buckeyes since the 2011-12 season, when the 12-1 Buckeyes were ranked second overall in the week eight AP poll and received five first-place votes.

Rankings will fluctuate throughout the season, and being atop or near the top of the polls in mid-December has no real bearing on whether a team will cut down the final nets in March Madness. Yet some of the accomplishments in getting to this point will have staying power.

According to Jordan Sperber of Hoop Vision, the Buckeyes have three 20-point wins against teams ranked among the nation’s top 50 by the advanced statistical metrics of KenPom.com, with the wins against Villanova (No. 19), North Carolina (22) and Penn State (24).

The rest of the nation has a combined three such wins.

“I mean, we’re not really worried about what other teams say,” senior Andre Wesson said when asked if the Penn State win sent a statement. “It’s good. Obviously, we put up a lot of points (and) held a very good Penn State team to what they had. It’s good. We made a statement victory, but we’re not really worried. We’ve got bigger goals and we’re going to attack every day the same way.”

With the wins against the No. 7 Tar Heels and No. 10 Villanova on Nov. 13, Ohio State has become the fourth team in history to beat two top-10 teams by at least 20 points during the same season. Villanova (2015-16), Duke (2000-01) and UCLA (1967-68) are the others, and all three went on to win the national championship.

“We’re in a really good place right now,” Holtmann said. “We’ve played pretty well, really well in stretches, but for us it’s all about can we stay on the path towards growth and then whatever happens, happens.”

Ohio State does have one national title to its credit, so by the definition of the word building toward contending for one isn’t unique. It might be special, though.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy