COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 29: Deshaun Thomas #1 of the Ohio State Buckeyes celebrates with fans after the game against the Duke Blue Devils at Value City Arena on November 29, 2011 in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State beat Duke 85-63. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Ohio State left no doubt as to whether or not it's a legitimate national title contender by demolishing No. 3 Duke on Tuesday night. But is this Thad Matta's best Buckeye team yet?
For the duration of the offseason, North Carolina and Kentucky were the college basketball equivalent of Liam and Noel Gallagher. A duo so prominent and oft-discussed that casual fans didn't have the time (or desire) to learn anything significant about the other contributors.
After second-ranked Ohio State's 22-point throttling of No. 3 Duke Tuesday night, it's officially time for Liam and Noel to make some room for...well, whoever one of the other people in Oasis was.
Not only is this Ohio State team better than the one which spent the bulk of last season ranked No. 1, it's the most complete Buckeye squad of the Thad Matta era. The 2011-2012 Bucks have more experience than the "Thad Five" group that lost to Florida in the '07 national championship game, and they're more talented than the past two OSU teams that bowed out in the Sweet 16.
Duke had won 35 straight games in November, but left Columbus with their worst defeat to a Big Ten team since 1958. And it was every bit as one-sided as the final score indicates.
The Buckeyes, who shot a ridiculous 59% from the field, scored the game's first 11 points and never trailed. They built a 19-point halftime advantage and didn't afford Duke the opportunity to make the monster second half run that seemed almost inevitable during intermission.
Player of the Year favorite Jared Sullinger unsurprisingly led the way for OSU with 21 points, but his supporting cast gave casual fans some extreme insight into why this year's Buckeye team is as capable of cutting down the nets in April as anyone in the country.
If he didn't play on the same team as Sullinger, William Buford would be in everyone's early discussion for both national and Big Ten player of the year. The senior guard is averaging 18 ppg, has scored 20 or more points in Ohio State's last three games and is the biggest reason opposing defenses can't flood Sullinger in the post without proper reprimand. He scored 20 last night and, facing an elite team whose strength is supposed to be its backcourt, looked like the most complete guard on the floor.
So much time is spent talking about Aaron Craft's "intelligence" or his "feel for the game" that just how talented he actually is almost gets glossed over. There isn't another point guard in the country who Craft couldn't shake off the dribble...other than maybe himself. The sophomore might be the best on-ball defender in college basketball, and the job he did on Austin Rivers and Seth Curry last night was Exhibit A.
The formula of just about every recent national champion has included one top contributor who improved more than anyone thought he would over the course of the season or from the previous season to the current one. Deshaun Thomas is the good player turned great for this squad, a trait he showcased during a personal 9-2 run that morphed a 38-26 Buckeye lead into a 47-28 halftime advantage. He was also the man given the most credit for holding Ryan Kelly, Duke's second-leading scorer entering the night, to zero points.
"Defense brings your offense," Thomas said. "I made sure that I had (strong) defense first and my offense would come second."
It's an encouraging quote from a player who, like many college freshmen over-sold on their own stardom during high school, appeared concerned last season that extended contact with the bench may result in the contraction of a terminal disease. A year later he's playing more, scoring more, rebounding more, shooting a higher percentage from the field and defending much, much more.
Ohio State may not demand the attention from NBA scouts that Carolina or Kentucky does, but in both last night's game and a Nov. 15 victory over Florida, they've looked like the nation's best team. Everyone has a role, everyone understands their role and everyone is very good at their role. Craft controls the game, Sullinger dominates the post, Buford handles the perimeter, Thomas is the X-Factor and Lenzelle Smith and company do whatever else needs to be done.
There are still questions to be answered - Ohio State has yet to leave the comforts of Value City Arena or play a tight game with Sullinger in foul trouble - but Tuesday was the clearest indication yet that Matta has all the pieces to eventually bring a national title back to Columbus.