On Monday, the Ohio State men’s basketball team moved into the top spot in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll.
But if the Buckeyes -- with six wins over mid- (and lower-) major programs -- are still in the top spot one week from now, they will have earned it.
OSU, ranked third in this week’s Associated Press media poll, travels to No. 7 North Carolina (4-1) Wednesday night for a game in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge (9 p.m., ESPN).
The Buckeyes were ranked third in last week’s coaches poll. But losses by top-ranked and defending national champion Florida (to Kansas) and North Carolina (to Gonzaga) helped OSU ascend to the top spot in that poll. (Fellow unbeatens UCLA and Pittsburgh remain ahead of OSU in the AP poll.)
Ohio State joins UCLA (in November 1967) and Notre Dame (in January 1974) as the only schools to be ranked No. 1 in both football and men’s basketball at the same time.
This is OSU’s first No. 1 ranking in either the AP or coaches poll since the end of the 1962 season, which was capped by a national title game loss to instate rival Cincinnati.
On Friday, OSU took to the road – OK, just three miles down Route 315 to Nationwide Arena – for a 91-57 rout of Youngstown State.
Following that game, OSU coach Thad Matta and several of his players looked ahead to the challenge of playing UNC … in the Challenge.
“If you had told us before the season, ‘You’ll be 6-0 going into Carolina,’ I wasn’t so sure that we would because there were so many unknowns,” Matta said. “I would feel better if Greg (Oden) was healthy and we were going to North Carolina. But this is a unique opportunity for us at this stage.”
Matta’s Buckeyes have won their first six games by an average of over 24 points a game. But his team of eight available scholarship players will have their hands full with UNC’s talented and deep 10-man rotation.
“That’s what preparation is for, to prepare for the opportunity we have on Wednesday night,” Matta said. “They are going to pose some problems we haven’t seen before. I know this sounds crazy but my mind is always striving toward getting us better. I am sure we will have some teachable moments and we’ll see some things we will face throughout the rest of the season.”
If there is an upside to this game, it is the familiarity most of the OSU players will have with North Carolina’s young squad.
“As I look at their roster, our guys have played against a majority of their players, especially the younger guys,” Matta said. “They have a pretty good feel for who they are. I think our guys will rise up to the challenge.”
Senior guard Ron Lewis, second on the team in scoring at 17.0 points per game, is eager to see where the Buckeyes stand.
“I’m curious to see how we play,” Lewis admitted. “We don’t know much about them.”
When asked if it will be a big challenge, Lewis said, “Yeah, because they’re a great caliber team, from what we’ve heard of them. It’s a big step for us to go and play on national TV. It could tell us what kind of team we have.”
Freshman guard Daequan Cook, who leads the Buckeyes at 17.8 ppg and is second in rebounding at 7.0 per game, shared his thoughts on the game.
“It’s one game we have been looking forward to,” Cook said. “Now we have to put in the hard work to get the best out of it.
“I have played against everybody there except (senior forward Reyshawn) Terry. I have played against Tyler Hansbrough. I have played against all of their freshmen and a couple of their sophomores.”
The 6-9, 245-pouns Hansbrough presents a match-up problem for Ohio State, which will be without the 7-0 Oden (wrist) for at least another few weeks.
Hansbrough leads UNC at 20.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. After UNC’s 80-74 loss to Gonzaga in the preseason NIT semis, Hansbrough responded with a 27-point outburst in a 101-87 win over Tennessee in the NIT consolation game.
After Hansbrough, three freshmen come next in scoring for the Tar Heels – 6-9 forward Brandan Wright (16.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg), 6-4 guard Wayne Ellington (12.2 ppg) and 5-11 guard Ty Lawson (10.6 ppg). Terry, a 6-8 forward, adds 8.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game for legendary coach Roy Williams.
* OSU is 2-3 all-time in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge with home wins over N.C. State in 2001 and Virginia Tech last year and losses to Duke (2002), Georgia Tech (2003) and Clemson (2004).
* Williams led Kansas to back-to-back wins over Ohio State in the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 seasons.
* OSU is 33-23 all-time against ACC teams, but just 2-7 against UNC. The teams have not met since OSU dropped back-to-back games to UNC in the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons.
* OSU is 45-36 all-time when playing in a game where both teams are ranked.
* This is clearly one of the marquee games in this year’s Challenge. ESPN’s Dan Shulman and Dick Vitale will call the action.