- Jeff Shelman
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When college basketball games tip-off Wednesday night -- the first night of March -- there will be nine teams that have four or fewer losses. It's a pretty impressive feat to have lost, basically, one game a month.
The list is an impressive one: There's Duke, Connecticut, Villanova, Texas, Gonzaga, Memphis, Bucknell and George Washington. That's eight.
The ninth member of this group is the most surprising. This team was projected to finish outside of the elite tier in its conference. When this season began, it's fan base seemed to be largely captivated by that sport with the pointy-ended ball or by the sport of recruiting.
The school? Ohio State.
And for the first time this season, the Buckeyes have begun to get a little attention outside of the 614 area code. It's only taken a 21-4 record, Ohio State moving into the top 10 of the Ratings Percentage Index, both major polls and the Buckeyes being on the verge of a Big Ten title for it to happen.
That's pretty good for a team that wasn't supposed to be that great until Greg Oden and company, arrive in Columbus next year.
A week ago, it seemed almost predestined that the Big Ten champion would have at least five losses and the title would be shared. That was when the Buckeyes were one of four Big Ten teams with four losses in league play. Every team, including Ohio State, had at least one difficult road game to play.
As Ohio State enters Wednesday night's game at Northwestern, the Buckeyes control their own destiny. Thad Matta's team is the only Big Ten team left with four conference losses. Defeat the Wildcats and win at home on Sunday, and Ohio State will win the title outright. It's reached the point where the Ohio State players acknowledge they want nothing less than a solo title.
"Sharing would be a disappointment," Ohio State center Terence Dials said. "We all know how hard it is to win at Northwestern, and we're going to try to do it."
If there is a Big Ten team that can take care of games it's expected to win, it is the Buckeyes. In a season in which Illinois has lost to Penn State, Michigan State and Iowa have lost to Minnesota, and Wisconsin has lost to Purdue, Ohio State has been extremely consistent.
After an undefeated nonconference season that included wins at St. Joseph's and against LSU, the Buckeyes have been very steady in Big Ten play. Their only losses this season have been at Indiana (back when the Hoosiers looked like a Tournament lock), to Michigan State in two overtimes, at Iowa and at Wisconsin.
Down the stretch this season, Ohio State has continued to improve. The Buckeyes have won seven of their past eight games; last week was especially impressive, as Ohio State won at always tough Michigan State and then defeated Michigan, despite not making perimeter shots.
The former is a sort of Big Ten badge of legitimacy, as winning at the Breslin Center is never an easy task. The later showed just how much the Buckeyes have improved this season.
Earlier this season, the scouting report on the Buckeyes went something like this: Limit their 3-pointers and you have a chance. Well, against Michigan, Ohio State made all of four 3-pointers. And they won by 10.
The reason is two-fold. First, Ohio State has evolved into a sneaky-good defensive team. Second, the improved play of Dials has ensured the Buckeyes are more than just a team of 3-point bombers.
The Buckeyes have the best 3-point field goal percentage defense in the Big Ten and they're giving up less than a point per possession. Now, the Buckeyes aren't going to be mistaken for a team that can win games with the way they guard, but they certainly defend well enough to get by.
Matta said the improvement on defense is simply the product of hard work and want-to.
"I would say it starts with the players -- and, in particular, our seniors," Matta said. "These guys have set out and been very focused and committed to doing the best we can do.
"[Monday was] practice No. 93 and I don't know if they've had two bad practices."
The Buckeyes don't have to be great defensively to win games, just above average.
"Against Michigan, we continued to defend and challenge shots," Matta said.
That improved defense is going to be crucial as March continues. The ability to get defensive stops during a time of the year when possessions are more and more valuable is often the difference between advancing and going home.
If you haven't seen Ohio State play, here's a mental image: Think Villanova.
Like the Wildcats, the Buckeyes play four players on the perimeter around one in the middle. Villanova has attempted 578 3-pointers and made an average of 9.04 per game. Ohio State has shot 547 3s in the same number of games, making 8.84 per game.
"Their [small forwards] and [power forwards] can shoot the ball well and it just spreads you out," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "And they're smart enough to -- after a few 3s -- pound it inside.
"If they hit difficult 3s like they did against us, it puts you in a bind ... they mix it up enough that they keep you off-guard."
That's where Ohio State and Villanova are a little different. The Buckeyes' four perimeter guys -- point guard Jamar Butler, guards Je'Kel Foster and J.J. Sullinger and forward Matt Sylvester -- are good, but they aren't as good as Allen Ray, Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry and Mike Nardi.
That said, Dials is a significant upgrade on Will Sheridan. Of late, Dials has looked very much like a potential Big Ten player of the year selection. In the past five games, Dials has recorded five consecutive double-doubles and averaged 19.6 points and 12.6 rebounds per game.
"Ohio State has more of a definitive inside presence than Villanova," Minnesota coach Dan Monson said. "I think Terence Dials makes those teams a little different. Sylvester is a 6-foot-7, 6-8 four man while Villanova's four-man is a guard. [The Buckeyes] have a little bit more size."
Because of Ohio State's ability to shoot the 3, Dials has not been double-teamed nearly as much as a lot of Big Ten centers.
"Playing four out and me in, it creates a lot of matchup problems," said Dials, one of three fifth-year seniors in the Buckeyes' starting lineup. "It's been working out pretty well for us.
"It's great for me, it opens so many things up for me."
Said Matta: "I think the light has gone on for Terence. He's seeing the sand going through the hourglass. He's playing more passionately and with more intensity on both ends of the floor."
That inside-out combination is a lot of the reason why Ohio State leads the Big Ten in scoring offense and in points per possession.
"One thing I think we do a good job with is playing unselfishly," Matta said. "No one truly cares who get the shots or the points."
But the Buckeyes are getting points -- inside and outside. And that's why Ohio State isn't going to have to wait for its hyped recruiting class to enter the NCAA tournament with optimism.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
Ohio State is closing in on a Big Ten title that most observers thought would come next season, Jeff Shelman writes.