When the Ohio State basketball season started, the expectations weren't exactly high.
After the transfer of Braxton Beverly and the dismissal of Derek Funderburk, Chris Holtmann at one point had just eight scholarship players on his roster, with a number of holes to fill before the season started.
Before too long, Holtmann was able to piece together a roster that has not only competed in the Big Ten, it has yet to lose a conference game and has collected a win over the No. 1 team in the country. To make things even better for the Buckeyes, Ohio State is at the top of the conference – along with No. 5 Purdue – in a year in which the Big Ten has not lived up to expectations.
If there was a year for the Big Ten to be down, this was a good time for it to happen, as Holtmann continues to rebuild a program that was desperate for excitement again.
To give you an idea of just how down the Big Ten is, first you need take a look at the multitude of preseason projections, many of which picked Ohio State to finish outside the top-10 in the conference.
Now, look at what the actual conference standings look like through Jan. 9, two days before Ohio State's fifth conference game.
|NO. 5 PURDUE||5-0||-||1.000||16-2||.889||W12|
|NO. 4 MICHIGAN STATE||3-1||1.5||.750||15-2||.882||L1|
To say the 2017-18 campaign has gone perfect wouldn't exactly be true, but it is as close to perfect as Ohio State fans, coaches and perhaps even players could have hoped for. The Buckeyes have four losses, but three of them came against teams currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. The lone loss against a currently unranked opponent came to Butler, Holtmann's former team, in overtime. The Bulldogs earned 23 votes in the AP poll in Week 9 of the season after upsetting No. 1 Villanova (sound familiar?), but then dropped their next three games to fall out of the discussion as a top-25 team.
The Buckeyes also failed to crack the top 25 following their win over the No. 1 team in the nation, but their upcoming schedule could play into their favor.
Not only is Ohio State undefeated through four conference games, the Buckeyes don't have to make a return trip to East Lansing, Mich., a place the Scarlet and Gray haven't won since March 4, 2012. In addition, Holtmann's squad takes on the Boilermakers just once this season, albeit on the road, Feb. 7.
The Buckeyes play Minnesota – a preseason top-15 team – just once, in a neutral site game at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 20. Two of Ohio State's next three games come against teams with losing records in conference play (Rutgers, Northwestern).
With the way the season has played out, and with Keita Bates-Diop garnering both regional and national attention for his play, the Buckeyes might not sneak up on teams anymore, after being labeled as an underdog for much of the year. Holtmann knows this, and said after defeating Michigan State on Sunday that his team will have to be on high alert as the conference season rolls on.
"We'll remind our guys of the importance of a mature, growth-minded approach, as boring as that sounds. That's gonna be required," Holtmann said. "Certainly when you have a win like this it does maybe alert more teams in your league. Listen, if we're not good enough to handle that, we'll find out."