COLUMBUS, Ohio – A half century has gone by since the last time Ohio State started a basketball season so well.
But rest assured, the player who was the central figure on that 1960-61 team knows what today's top-ranked Buckeyes are going through.
"You're the last ones standing and when you're the last one standing, everyone's gunning for you," said Jerry Lucas, Olympic gold medalist and an NBA champion with the New York Knicks who took three Ohio State teams to a national championship game. "You're the focal point of everybody's attention. Every team that plays against you is trying to knock you off your perch. So, it's a very, very difficult situation. But they've handled it very well so far."
These Buckeyes (24-0, 11-0 Big Ten) have gone where no Ohio State team has gone since Lucas and John Havlicek led their Fred Taylor-coached defending national champions to a 27-0 record, before falling to Cincinnati in the 1961 NCAA title game.
A lot of eyes are on today's Buckeyes, that's for sure. And everyone seems to have an opinion on just how good they are.
"I'm actually not too surprised. I saw them this summer and knew that they'd be a team to contend and be in the top-10 and have a successful season," said Mike Conley Jr., point guard for the Memphis Grizzlies and the floor leader on Ohio State's last No. 1-ranked team, in 2006-07. "It's tough to go undefeated. They can do it. I hope they can."
Before the season started, Baylor coach Scott Drew brought his squad to Columbus for a closed-doors scrimmage. Ohio State's players and coach Thad Matta decline to say much about the practice game, although word has leaked out that freshman center Jared Sullinger dominated and that the Buckeyes, for the first time, showed they were special. They controlled both ends against a Baylor club that now stands 16-7 and has a star of its own in LaceDarius Dunn, averaging 20 points a game.
"I know when we got done scrimmaging them I was worried. Because at that time I knew they were good but I didn't know how good," Bears coach Scott Drew recalled. "After we got done, I was like, 'We've got some work to do.' But after seeing them play, none of this surprises me."
Matta's lucky seventh Ohio State team — one that has been a unanimous choice for No. 1 the past two weeks — is a unique blend of savvy, experienced players and freshmen who have made startling contributions.
Sullinger — the son of a coach and the brother of two other Division I players — is a 6-foot-9 load in the middle. He is built like Charles Barkley, with a pleasant personality that accompanies a bruising inside game. He has superb court awareness, and excels at sensing where a defender is before shooting. The Columbus native, who is a two-time Associated Press Ohio Mr. Basketball, draws more fouls than anyone at the college level.
Junior William Buford is perhaps the best all-around player on the roster. He has a nice touch, but can also slash to the basket and play defense. Seniors Jon Diebler and David Lighty, along with Buford, keep defenses from crowding Sullinger. Diebler, drawing close to becoming the Big Ten's all-time 3-point shot leader, is the leading high school scorer ever in Ohio. Lighty, in his fifth-year after twice breaking bones in his foot (including this past offseason), can go to the basket, and is also a lockdown defender.
Although defensive-minded big man Dallas Lauderdale starts, he's usually replaced at the first timeout by freshman Aaron Craft, a revelation as the team's nominal point guard. From a little school near Findlay, Ohio, he brings the ball up against pressure, delivers it to the shooters, keeps defenses honest by hitting 3s, drives the lane, and consistently smothers the opposition's best guard on defense.
Toss in Indiana Mr. Basketball Deshaun Thomas, another freshman, and you see why the opposition has a dilemma.
"When you watch this team play, there are days when you say Lighty's their best player, and then another day Buford's their best player, and then Sullinger's their best player. And then Diebler makes eight 3s in the next game," said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. "And then there are times you say, 'Well, the guy that makes them go is Craft.'"
The last Division I men's team to go unbeaten throughout a season was Indiana in 1975-76. The coach was Bob Knight, a member of those great Ohio State teams that featured Lucas and Havlicek.
Matta, then in grade school in Hoopeston, Ill., fell in love with that Hoosiers team.
"In '76, when they went undefeated, there was a guy from my hometown named Scott Eells, who was on that team," Matta said. "He was like my idol. So, I just, at that point, started saying that was the team right there. You had (Quinn) Buckner, (Scott) May, (Kent) Benson, (Tom) Abernathy. That was a great team, obviously."
And now Matta is coach of a team with just seven games separating it from a perfect regular season.
Lighty is the last holdover from Ohio State's glittering team of 2006-07. Matta brought in one of the greatest recruiting classes ever that year, built around 7-0 Greg Oden and his Indiana high school teammate, Conley. That club went 35-4, finished the regular season ranked No. 1, and went all the way to the NCAA title game before falling to defending champion Florida, 84-75.
Now, oddly, history could repeat itself. Only once in the history of the AP polls has a school that was No. 1 in football and basketball been knocked off in the same academic year by the same school.
It was Florida that also defeated the top-ranked Buckeyes in the 2007 BCS national championship game, 41-14. Wisconsin can pull off the same remarkable feat this year.
The football Badgers upended unbeaten and No. 1 Ohio State last Oct. 16 in Madison, Wis., handing the Buckeyes their only loss, 31-18.
Next up for the unbeaten and No. 1 basketball Buckeyes? That's right — No. 13 Wisconsin (18-5, 8-3), on Saturday, again in Madison, Wis.
"That was early in the football season," Badgers coach Bo Ryan said, with his voice trailing off. "So, the comparisons that way ..."
Matta said he isn't worried that Wisconsin could break Ohio State hearts once again.
"It's like I told our guys, 'That's like if a frog had wings he wouldn't bump his (back side) all the time,'" Matta said with a chuckle. "It's irrelevant. This is basketball and we're not going to be able to change any of that. A frog's not going to get wings."
Matta, in the midst of a feel-good season, laughed out loud.