CHICAGO -- Ohio State visited Illinois in January, got handled pretty good and subsequently dropped to 15th in the Associated Press Poll, this after being ranked fourth in the preseason despite losing two key and important pieces.
The Buckeyes were 11-3.
But they had zero quality wins.
So smart people were wondering if they'd just lost too much to be great.
"But we never wondered," OSU sophomore Sam Thompson told me Saturday inside a victorious locker room filled with guys who will play in Sunday's Big Ten final. "There was no point during our approach this season when we questioned ourselves."
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"Because we knew the talent was there," Thompson said, "and the coaching staff."
I really like that quote from Thompson because it describes Ohio State perfectly, doesn't it? The Buckeyes always have talent, and they've had a staff led by Thad Matta for the past nine years. Consequently, Ohio State has become one of the nation's most reliable basketball programs, proof being that OSU has finished first or second in the Big Ten standings in six of the past eight seasons, including each of the past four.
Which means it was probably silly to ever question things.
We all know that now even if we all might not have known that then.
Yes, OSU had serious questions in November, December and early January considering Jared Sullinger and William Buford were no longer student-athletes, and considering this 2012-13 version of the Buckeyes had lost to every quality opponent -- Duke, Kansas and Illinois -- they'd played as of the morning of Jan. 19. But the metrics were always positive, the signs always there. So Matta, like Thompson, never worried much.
"I just thought it was going to be a process," he said. "In some of the games we played early, we had some great stretches. But we weren't able to put it all together. ... At Duke, we played a solid 32 minutes but couldn't get the last eight minutes. Even Kansas, we had some great runs through a stretch there. And I think that was my biggest focus. I thought if this team could put it together that we had a chance to be pretty good."
Which brings me back to Saturday.
A back-and-forth slugfest doubling as the second Big Ten semifinal resulted in a 61-58 victory for the Buckeyes over Michigan State. So this team that had zero quality wins two months into season now has seven wins against the top 50 of the RPI -- and a seven-game winning streak to boot. The Buckeyes are, undeniably, pretty good.
They've topped Indiana.
They've topped Michigan State (twice).
They topped Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and the Wisconsin team they'll play in Sunday's title game here at the United Center, and they beat poor Nebraska three times by a combined 54 points. The Buckeyes still don't have a clear No. 2 scorer to pair with Deshaun Thomas. It could be Lenzelle Smith one night, Aaron Craft the next and LaQuinton Ross the next, and that's an issue that folks will never stop talking about it. Regardless, it's important to note that Ohio State has figured out a way to have an offense that ranks 15th in terms of efficiency at KenPom.com, and the Buckeyes' defense ranks sixth. That means they're one of just three schools with a top-15 offense and top-15 defense (the others are Gonzaga and Florida), and you don't have to understand much math to know that alone suggests Matta has turned this into a dangerous outfit.
Matta mostly deferred on that topic.
But here's the truth: The Buckeyes are good enough offensively to get by anybody, dominant enough defensively to hang around everybody and much more comfortable on March 16 than they were on Jan. 16. The past two months have shown the first two were just a necessary growing period. Like Thompson said, the talent was always there -- the coaching staff, too. So everything has come together nicely like it tends to do in Columbus, and now it's reasonable to project big, perhaps even Matta's third Final Four.