Even in survival, No. 1 OSU is impressive

EVANSTON, Ill. -- A win is a win is a win.

It's a horrible coach-speak cliché, that sentence, but clichés become clichés because they're true. When you're the No. 1 team in the nation, and everyone expects you to steamroll struggling conference opponents, sometimes a win really is a win.

So, no, you won't hear Ohio State coach Thad Matta doing too much postgame criticism of his team, even after that team barely edged a so-so Northwestern team with three seconds remaining. After all, in case you forgot, this team is now 22-0.

"We're going to celebrate our wins," Matta said. "These things are hard to get."

When you’re as good as these Buckeyes are, you’ll have your fair share of blowouts. There will be special nights -- like in Tuesday's comprehensive wipeout of putative Big Ten title contender Purdue -- when everything comes together, when every shot seems to fall, when the immense talent that made you the last unbeaten team in the land is on full, impressive display.

You'll also have nights like this. And on nights like this, it's enough to merely survive.

That's what the Buckeyes did in Saturday night's 58-57 win over Northwestern: survived. Thanks in large part to the low-post dominance of Jared Sullinger -- and his game-clinching free throw with 3.5 seconds remaining -- Matta's charges and company edged a resilient, pesky Northwestern team in front of a rowdy Welsh-Ryan Arena crowd. For their trouble, the Bucks can continue to enjoy their status as the final undefeated outfit in college hoops -- even if the road to that 22nd win wasn't paved with obvious dominance.

No, this was a struggle, and Northwestern's style was the reason why. With sharpshooter John Shurna on the sidelines thanks to lingering concussion symptoms, NU coach Bill Carmody decided to bust out Notre Dame coach Mike Brey's "burn" offense. The Wildcats played Saturday's game at a glacial pace, whittling the shot clock down to its final seconds on nearly every possession in an attempt to limit Ohio State's possessions and keep the game within reach.

It worked. At 49 possessions, this game was the second-slowest major conference contest of the season. Notre Dame's 48-possession win at Pittsburgh last week still holds that top spot. That pace allowed Northwestern to stay in striking distance for most of the game, and a gutty Michael Thompson-led run saw the Wildcats take a late lead after having trailed by 13 points with 11 minutes left in the second half.

The Wildcats had chances, too. With 19 seconds remaining and the score tied at 55, guard Alex Marcotullio saw teammate JerShon Cobb streaking to the rim. But Ohio State guard David Lighty recovered at the last second, snatched the pass out of the air, and gave Ohio State its chance to win the game on the final possession.

That's when the Buckeyes did what the Buckeyes do: They dumped the ball to Sullinger and let him go to work. Sullinger got inside his defender on a lob from Jon Diebler. Northwestern hacked the freshman forward, but Sullinger made good on the second of his two free throws, giving Ohio State a narrow lead and, after a last-ditch Drew Crawford heave, a narrow win.

"You have to give them credit, because they're winning all these close games," Carmody said. "They just find a way to win."

That find-a-way-to-win quality is hard to pin down, but it's a must-have for national title contenders, and these Buckeyes appear to fit the profile.

That's one way to look at this team, anyway. Call that the sunny outlook. The cloudy one -- which Matta was asked about in a variety of coded ways Saturday night -- says that a national title contender shouldn't be nagged by teams like Northwestern, even on the road. This is a season-long trend for the Bucks, who have had more nail-biters than blowouts in conference play, and who haven't exactly dominated league foes on a per-possession basis, either. (That efficiency margin looks better after Tuesday's win.)

Whether you buy the "they just know how to win!" line is a matter of personal disposition. One can imagine Ohio State fans, primed for a run at the national title, feeling just a little bit freaked out by all these close calls. Or maybe some fans think this experience winning close games is a good sign for the team's chances in March.

Either way, this team is as talented, cohesive and well-balanced as any in the country. It has a little bit of everything: Size, low-post dominance, hot shooting, intelligent point guard play, athletic defense. And because Sullinger is impossible to stop with one defender, the Buckeyes force opposing teams to make a choice. Opponents can either double Sullinger and leave OSU's more-than-capable outside shooters, or they can let Sullinger do his man-sized work in the interior, where he can single-handedly take over games.

On Tuesday, Purdue chose to double the freshman, and OSU shot 11-of-17 (including William Buford's 5-of-6 performance) from beyond the arc. On Saturday, Northwestern rarely doubled, and Sullinger was his typically effective self.

"We just didn't want them to go off," Carmody said. "How many 3s did they have? One? Two? ... We just didn't want to let their shooters get going outside. I thought we did a nice job doing what we came into the game trying to do."

Carmody is a cerebral coach, and his game plan for dealing with what we might as well officially title as "The Sully Quandary" -- i.e. "Do we double or not?" -- was as sound as any you'll find. The Wildcats often left Sullinger to be defended by one man, but they also sprang doubles from time to time and chose spots to attack based on where Sullinger caught the ball. This strategy worked, in so far as it prevented Ohio State from draining wide-open 3s. (To answer Carmody's question, the Buckeyes were 2-of-8 from beyond the arc.) But the savvy Bucks still created matchup problems for Northwestern, using rangy guards Lighty and Buford in the post, and converting on easy inside looks more often than not.

Ohio State's low score was more indicative of the game's pace than anything else; the Buckeyes scored 1.23 points per trip Saturday night, posting a 59.5 effective field goal percentage in the process.

Carmody had a great game plan, and it worked as well as it possibly could have. But Ohio State's offense makes game plans obsolete. It has too many weapons, and it doesn't even need all of them to be playing well.

In fact, the most disconcerting part of OSU's performance came at the free throw line, where the Buckeyes missed a handful of shots down the stretch as the Wildcats battled back. But in pretty much every other regard, the Buckeyes have "The Look." It sounds weird to say, but even in a one-point win at Northwestern, you could see why this team is 22-0.

Matta said he saw plenty of things that "made him angry enough," but he's not worried about his team's performance. Quite the contrary, actually.

"The challenge is everyone plays the score comparison game," Matta said. "They do the, 'this team beat this team by this,' 'this other team beat this team' … that stuff doesn’t mean anything.

"What is it, January 29th?" Matta continued, as a sly grin sneaked across his face. "And there's, what, one team left that hasn’t been beaten?"

Matta trailed off, and the media room chuckled. The point was made.

Pretty or ugly, blowout or nail-biter, at home or on the road, sometimes a win is a win is a win.