Ohio State is playing for a Big Ten title.
That is not a sentence many thought we would be saying when Chris Holtmann took the reigns of the Buckeye basketball program in June, yet here we are.
Ohio State improved to 18-4 overall with a 64-59 win over Nebraska on Monday night, surpassing its win total from a season ago, in which the Buckeyes were bounced from the Big Ten Tournament in the first round. More importantly for the Scarlet and Gray, they are a perfect 9-0 in conference play, already guaranteeing at least a .500 finish in league games after finishing 7-11 a year ago.
Perhaps even more important than Ohio State's record in conference games is how the Buckeyes are adding W's to the left column in the record book. Holtmann's squad has won games with stellar perimeter shooting, and has won games in the post, as proven by its win over the Cornhuskers, in which OSU scored 38 of its 64 points in the painted area. The Buckeyes have won via blowouts and nail-biters, something the first-year OSU coach believes will benefit his team down the stretch.
"(It's) critical. I think it's important for us to play in close games," Holtmann said. "I expected this would be a game that would go down to the last two minutes. We talked to our guys about that. I think it was good to see how we responded offensively and defensively."
Down the stretch, Ohio State made critical plays that it seemed it couldn't make a season ago. Senior Jae'Sean Tate hit a pair of key free throws with the Buckeyes nursing a one-point lead with three minutes to play. Eighty-five seconds later, sophomore forward Andre Wesson's on-ball defense helped force a shot-clock violation that led to a Tate layup on the ensuing possession.
Last season, Nebraska defeated Ohio State at Value City Arena in a similar, low-scoring game where offense was often at a premium. In the closing seconds of that game, it was the Cornhuskers that made the plays late to earn a hard-fought victory. This time around, the script was flipped.
Nebraska head coach Tim Miles said that other than Ohio State's new-look roster that features a healthy Keita Bates-Diop and a slew of fresh faces, the Buckeyes seem like a re-energized team from the one he defeated in 2017.
"They are bought in and they believe in what they are doing," Miles said of Holtmann's team. "There is no individual agenda. Their body language is really good. You have to commend Chris and his staff coming into a situation late and getting those guys.
"You can listen to them when they talk. The way (Tate) talks about the coaches and about where they are going, you can see how fired up they were."
Where the Buckeyes appear to be going – barring a colossal collapse – is back to the NCAA Tournament, a place Ohio State has not gone since the 2014-15 season, when D'Angelo Russell donned the scarlet and gray. What is more, the Buckeyes are legitimate contenders for a Big Ten title, as Monday's win kept OSU tied atop the conference standings with Purdue as the only teams with undefeated league records.
The stretch Ohio State is on isn't unprecedented, as Thad Matta's 2010-11 squad started the conference season with 11 straight wins. There is still an entire second half of the Big Ten season to play – not including the conference tournament in Madison Square Garden – but for Holtmann, the run his team is on is something he wants to make sure he appreciates as the unlikely road back to the NCAA Tournament continues to look more likely.
"I don't want to take this for granted," Holtmann said. "I've never been a part of anything like this, and I don't know that I ever will again. You don't just start 9-0 in conference play, and I don't want to take that for granted. It's been an amazing run, and hopefully we continue it."