By John Gasaway, ESPN Insider
On Saturday, Ohio State will play at Wisconsin, and the conventions of sports writing suggest it's foolish to write a piece about how great any team is right before it plays in Madison. You may have heard that the Badgers tend to win a very high percentage of such games, and at the moment Bo Ryan's team is riding a six-game winning streak.
It's entirely possible that the Buckeyes will lose when they visit Wisconsin. After all, Thad Matta's team has already lost at Indiana and Illinois, and while those teams are very good they're not what one would call historically formidable. (The Hoosiers are currently ranked No. 20 in the nation, while the Illini are unranked. For the record OSU also lost at Kansas on Dec. 10, a game it played without Jared Sullinger.) But maybe the conventions of sports writing -- and of polling -- could benefit from greater awareness of an admittedly dull fact: losses do happen, even to the best teams.
We've been waiting patiently for 36 years now for the next version of Indiana in 1976, and we're still waiting. Perhaps Murray State will win the national championship this season and fill that longing for the Perfect Season. While we wait, I want to say a word or two about a plainly imperfect Ohio State team.
This is the best team in the country right now
The Buckeyes are my choice as the No. 1 team in the country, and, yes, I realize mine is a minority view. Maybe even a solitary view. In this week's polls OSU didn't receive a single No. 1 vote from a writer or coach anywhere in the nation. (Not one!) Still, I don't think the disagreement here is really so pronounced. These are all exceptionally strong teams we're discussing, but a top 25 only allows you one No. 1, and I just happen to think the team in Columbus is the strongest.
Kentucky and Syracuse have fewer losses, but in the course of tracking each possession recorded by 157 teams in conference play, I've come to the conclusion that if we played this season 500 times or so Matta's group would emerge as the top team. In conference play, Ohio State's played two games decided by single digits and, you guessed it, the Buckeyes went 0-2, dropping games to the Hoosiers and the Illini. In every other Big Ten game, though, OSU has won with ease. Meantime Syracuse is 4-1 in Big East games decided by single digits, and Kentucky's 2-0 in such games in SEC play.
Maybe this means the Buckeyes aren't clutch and they "don't know how to win the close ones." We'll find out, of course. That's what March and April are for. Meantime I'm wagering that the ability to blow opponents away most of the time is also an important metric.
Ohio State and Kentucky may both turn out to be unusually mighty
It's rare to see a team outscore its major-conference opponents by more than 0.20 points per possession, but this season we're seeing two teams do just that. Two guesses who those teams are (see table).
TEAM YEAR MARGIN
Ohio State 2012 +0.28
Kentucky 2012 +0.25
Kansas 2008 +0.24
Texas 2011 +0.20
For the record I expect these numbers to come down for both the Buckeyes and the Wildcats. Both teams are yet to play their toughest games: at Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State in OSU's case, and at Vanderbilt and Florida in UK's case.
But the numbers can fall and still mark these two teams as uniquely strong. And what's impressive about Ohio State's performance in particular is that the Buckeyes have recorded this scoring margin in the Big Ten. By common consensus, by the RPI and by measures much more sophisticated than the RPI, this is the best conference in the country, one that after years of futility is all of a sudden beating the ACC annually in that challenge the two conferences have. When your team is outscoring the best conference in the nation by the largest margin seen from any major-conference program in the past five years, you earn my vote as the No. 1 team in the country. One man's opinion.
Great offense, greater defense
The Buckeyes are an excellent team when it comes to scoring (their strength, go figure, is efficiency in the paint), but it's also true that before all is said and done offenses like those of Indiana or Michigan State might eclipse Matta's team in terms of effectiveness on that side of the ball. Right now all three offenses are neck-and-neck in performance during Big Ten play.
But where OSU has simply kicked down the wall and opened up an entire new wing of possibility is on defense. In this instance I think our eyes are doing us a disservice: Ohio State on defense just doesn't look as impressive as Kentucky does on defense. Yet the numbers say the Buckeyes have the superior D and, indeed, it isn't even particularly close. How can that be?
Simple: Ohio State as a team, and Jared Sullinger as a player, doesn't block shots. To see the Wildcats' Anthony Davis swatting away shots and altering many others is to register, correctly, much of what makes Kentucky so excellent on defense. But the Buckeyes' strengths are less dramatic and more cumulative. Basically, Matta's brought together four things that have no business being brought together: excellent interior field goal defense, an abundance of forced turnovers (take a bow, Aaron Craft), dominance on the defensive glass and a near-total lack of fouling.
How effective has this combination been on defense? Consider this: Even if Ohio State's Big Ten opponents never committed a single turnover, this defense would still be better than Indiana's.
And then there's the small matter of Jared Sullinger I feel like Sullinger has somewhat been overlooked nationally this season. Maybe it's because he hasn't had that one monster game that we can all point to. But at the end of the day this is still a Blake Griffin-level performer, one who makes 60 percent of his 2s, draws six fouls for every 40 minutes he plays and shoots 76 percent at the line. Sullinger is also one of the top defensive rebounders in the country. (Meanwhile his offensive rebounding has dipped, perhaps in part because he's now dutifully putting in the cameo appearances on the perimeter required of any big man in his preparatory year leading into the NBA draft.) Craft, Deshaun Thomas and William Buford all bring something to the table, goodness knows, but Sullinger is quite simply one of the two or three best players in the country, even if he is somewhat overlooked.
None of which guarantees that Ohio State will win the national championship, of course, or even make the Final Four. Last year Texas recorded an unbelievably impressive per-possession performance in the Big 12, for example, and if the Longhorns parlayed that into an unbelievably impressive NCAA tournament run I must have missed it. But right now all we have to go on are the games and possessions that teams have played so far in 2011-12. And to my eyes no one's been more impressive over the course of its games and possessions than Ohio State.