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Ohio State basketball: The eye test

With an undefeated non-conference slate behind it, the Ohio State Buckeyes enter Big Ten play undefeated, and as the highest ranked team in the conference. Are these Buckeyes truly one of the conference's (and country's) best?

The Buckeyes, and Amir Williams, are towering over their competition.
The Buckeyes, and Amir Williams, are towering over their competition.
Kirk Irwin

You heard about the much maligned Buckeye schedule to start the season. How the slate was filled with the likes of Wyoming and North Florida and Delaware and something called "Bryant". While teams like Arizona were getting resume wins over Duke and Michigan*, and North Carolina was was David-ing Goliaths like then-number-three Louisville and then-number-one Michigan State, Ohio State was feasting on the also-rans of low-major conferences, padding its win total and elevating itself nationally simply by not losing, be it against a good or a bad team.

*Note: Michigan isn't a resume win for Arizona because the Wolverines may be one of the most overrated teams in the country this year. Read and repeat ad infinitum for the full effect.

Sitting at #3 in both major polls, the Buckeyes have played every game on their schedule and outscored each opponent they have faced. With the Big Ten set to tip off at Mackey Arena on Tuesday afternoon, are the Buckeyes deserving of their lofty status atop the polls, or are they simply the beneficiaries of a soft schedule? Does this Ohio State team strike fear into opponents, or is it simply a giant waiting to be toppled? Is this team as good as their record and ranking suggest?

Put simply: Do the Ohio State Buckeyes pass "the eye test"?

With Buckeye Football on a bit of a break until Friday (and off for the last few weeks), the Basketball Bucks have come into the spotlight - on TV, in the paper, and around water coolers throughout the 614. More often than not, the most popular opinion seems to be that the Buckeyes are a good squad this year, but wait until they get into the Big Ten season. This is a fair opinion to have, as the lack of a major opponent has hurt the Buckeyes reputation, something the football team knows all too well.

It is also an opinion that is easy to have if one hasn't watched this Buckeye team up close. Ohio State got unlucky this year, drawing lowly and Big Ten-bound Maryland in ESPN's Big Ten/ACC Challenge, rather than a better opponent like Duke or North Carolina.

In the Buckeyes' other two "marquee" games, the opponents haven't kept up their ends of the bargain, as far as victories go. Ohio State beat then-number-17 Marquette in Minneapolis back in November, holding the Golden Eagles to a paltry 35 total points. But since then, Marquette has gone just 5-4, with three losses to un-ranked opponents. The other game was a prime time affair against Notre Dame in Madison Square Garden, which saw the Buckeyes rally unbelievably from an eight-point deficit in under a minute to win, 64-61. It took a miracle in Manhattan to beat a team that has losses to Indiana State, North Dakota State, and needed overtime this weekend to beat Canisius at home.

So the marquee mathcups have not been, really. But we're still left with that little zero at the back end of the Buckeyes' record, which leaves them, for now, in the forefront of the national discussion. And begs, again, the question of whether or not this team passes the eye test.

After the last decade or so of relative dominance by the Buckeyes, the year's team may be a bit of an afterthought, in truth. From the Greg Oden/Mike Connely Championship Game run, to the National Player of the Year Evan Turner Era, to the Jared Sullinger so-close-but-so-far tourney runs, Buckeye fans have been spoiled by a basketball team that impresses so easily.

But this year is a little different. Familiar faces like Sullinger and Oden and Turner aren't abundant. In fact, the more casual Buckeye hoops fan would be hard-pressed to name five players that aren't Aaron Craft or Amedeo Della Valle (note: I had trouble doing just that). Likely the most notable coverage (other than in this fair Internet real estate) the Buckeyes received this year was mostly due to Amir Williams thinking quicker than he speaks, although barely.

Without the transcendent presence young wunderkinds like Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker, the Buckeyes are turning mostly to their old hands to elevate them above their competition. Lenzel Smith Jr., a senior, leads the team in points, shoots better than .500 and pulls down over five rebounds per game. LaQuinton Ross, a junior, is right with his teammate in points and rebounds. And the ever-present Aaron Craft, another senior, is still the nation's best on-ball defender, despite new rules that most predicted would cause bouts of foul trouble for the rosy-cheeked guard.

Keep looking at the roster, though, and you will keep seeing important pieces in a very talented puzzle. Shannon Scott is a more than capable guard with an almost unmatched above the rim game. Amir Williams is a leader who can give double digit rebounds or points when needed. Even the aforementioned Della Valle, who has never seen a three pointer he wouldn't take, has stepped up his defensive game considerably, and is becoming a more and more reliable threat for a late-game dagger three.

This may be the deepest, most athletic Buckeye team in Columbus since Matta took over in 2004.

Thad Matta has been criticized in recent years for not using his bench to shore up holes caused by foul trouble late in games, but this might be the deepest team he's had in his decade-plus at the helm. There are plenty of teams with plenty of star power in the country, but few teams in the nation go as deep as the Buckeyes do. The depth will be sorely needed to survive the rigors of a Big Ten season, and to make a deep run in March and, whether you want to admit it or not, this may be the deepest, most athletic Buckeye team in Columbus since Matta took over in 2004.

The Big Ten is full of good teams, with undefeated Wisconsin, once-beaten Michigan State, and over half the conference already to double-digit win seasons. Perhaps the best (and first) real test of this Buckeye squad will come on January 7th, when Ohio State travels to the Izzone for a late-night tip against formidable Sparty (and if that doesn't do it, a February 1st game at Wisconsin should be a test, as well).

But for now, looking at not only what the Buckeyes have done, but how the Buckeyes have done it, we go back to the question at hand: does the Ohio State team pass the eye test?

For now, the answer is a more than qualified yes.