CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The moment CJ Walker tossed the ball to Danny Hummer with 53 seconds remaining in Ohio State’s 74-49 decimation of North Carolina, a familiar sound rang out in the Dean E. Smith Center stands. A sound quite common at basketball and football games featuring the Buckeyes, but less common in enemy territory more than 350 miles from home.
Everybody in Columbus knew what was coming next.
Hummer dribbled the ball behind his back.
A half-second passed, the clock winding down with the result no longer in question.
The roar went around the arena again. And again. And again.
By the time the clock ran out, everybody left in the arena and those watching on ESPN had enough time to process what had happened. Ohio State had gone south to face seventh-ranked North Carolina and routed the Tar Heels with such decisiveness that their fans headed home early, allowing the Buckeyes fans in attendance to make their presence known with “O-H-I-O” chants reverberating around the arena.
The day before, Chris Holtmann had noted the importance of the entirety of December, a month that also includes games against Kentucky, West Virginia, Penn State and Minnesota. About 30 hours or so before the victory, he said that “one game is one game” in order to impress the importance of staying even-keeled throughout the stretch.
There’s no minimizing what happened on Wednesday night, though.
Ohio State defeated a storied program on the road in historic fashion behind a remarkably stout defense. The game marks the most impressive non-conference victory in the Holtmann era, and it came in the first road game of the season.
“They were a hungry group, hungry to kind of come in and perform,” Holtmann said after the victory. “Probably a little nervous, too. First time on the road. They were hungry to perform well.”
With the win, Ohio State has a chance to ascend even further in the Associated Press top-25 poll from its No. 6 spot – provided the Nittany Lions don’t send it crashing back to Earth on Saturday afternoon. Its résumé now includes a 25-point road trouncing of the Tar Heels, a 25-point beatdown of Villanova and an eight-point home win against Cincinnati.
“We know what we thought about us as a team,” Duane Washington Jr. said. “Like I said, we're going to keep all that stuff in the locker room between us. But we know. We're going to approach every game with the same mentality, and nothing's going to change all year.”
At this point, especially after the latest blowout, a single question persists: Just how good are the Buckeyes, and how good can they become?
Ohio State has impressed, but it’s a query that doesn’t really have a firm answer quite yet. Even the three standout opponents that the Buckeyes have faced – Cincinnati, Villanova and North Carolina – are far from perfect. The Bearcats lost to Bowling Green and barely snuck by Valparaiso and Illinois State. The Wildcats have dropped out of the top 10, falling down to No. 22 in the AP poll. Few teams have had to deal with as many injuries as the Tar Heels, who lost Armando Bacot during the first half of Wednesday’s game.
“We're still trying to figure out all across the country how good everybody is,” Holtmann said. “And through six or seven or eight games, it's hard to really make any definitive statements on anything. They're learning and growing as a group. So are we.”
The in-season growth of Ohio State especially matters due to the roster makeup. With seven underclassmen, including four freshmen, compared to one senior, Holtmann has constantly called this the youngest team he has ever coached. A good bit of this team’s ceiling is attached to that youth, especially DJ Carton and E.J. Liddell, a pair of freshmen.
Carton, an athletic point guard who averages 10.1 points, three assists and 2.9 rebounds per game, flashes the spectacular. Yet as seen with his eight points and four assists in 19 minutes on Wednesday, he’s not yet the feature player on offense.
Liddell has slowly improved each game, leading to his best game yet this season against North Carolina. In 16 minutes, he scored 12 points and pulled down six rebounds.
“(Liddell’s) getting there, I think. He's really getting there,” Holtmann said. “And we've got to try to put him in positions where he can impact the game offensively – and I think he blocked a couple shots tonight, which was good.”
The importance of Liddell and Carton, especially this season, will likely matter more on offense than defense, where the Buckeyes already rank among the best in the country.
Under Holtmann, defense should always be the backbone. Last year, that identity meant Ohio State had a high floor as a team. But if the Buckeyes can maintain an adjusted defensive efficiency rating that’s anywhere around their current ranking of No. 2 in the nation, their ceiling will rise along with that floor. In the next few months, the sustainability of their success on that end of the court will get tested.
Offensively, Ohio State has played somewhat more inefficiently and with less consistency. Unlike a year ago, though, when Holtmann had to run everything through Kaleb Wesson, his entire eight-man rotation has contributed as scorers, with each player averaging between seven and 13 points per game.
For just a month into the season, they have remarkably defined roles. CJ Walker’s the veteran point guard. Carton’s the high-paced, high-flying guard. Washington’s the microwave scorer. Luther Muhammad’s the relentless perimeter defender. Andre Wesson’s the “3-and-D” wing. Liddell’s the frontcourt scorer off the bench. Kyle Young’s the high-energy big man. Kaleb Wesson’s the versatile center.
The question for each player now becomes how much they can increase their performance within individual roles and thrive with what Holtmann and his staff ask from each of them.
“I feel like we aren't at our best right now, but I feel like we're going to keep playing together and we're going to keep getting big wins like this,” Liddell said.
In the next month, the Buckeyes will have a chance to back up those words.
Penn State’s next, Minnesota follows, and game against Kentucky and West Virginia are on the horizon. Soon, we'll get an even better idea of just how far Ohio State might go this season. But based on the results of the first month of the season, there's reason for plenty of optimism in Columbus.