COLUMBUS, Ohio -- As Deshaun Thomas exited the postgame press conference that followed No. 2 Ohio State’s 85-63 victory over Duke on Tuesday night, NBA stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade escaped Value City Arena through a nearby loading dock.
The duo watched Thomas and Co. destroy the fourth-ranked Blue Devils in the most marquee matchup of this year's Big Ten/ACC Challenge. When James and Wade arrived, photographers scurried like paparazzi on a red carpet.
“I saw them,” said Thomas, who scored 18 points. “It was great motivation to show off for them because they show off for us all the time on TV.”
But LeBron and D-Wade weren’t the headliners on this night.
Under the brightest lights of the young season, Ohio State embraced the moment and destroyed a team that just won the prestigious Maui Invitational, handing Duke its most lopsided nonconference loss in the regular season since 1995.
The Buckeyes weren’t distracted by the frenzy that preceded the game -- fans had camped outside the venue for days and there was legitimate buzz in a city and on a campus dominated by football and the arrival of new coach Urban Meyer.
Competing while two NBA All-Stars sat courtside obviously didn’t rattle them, either. And more importantly, Duke’s threats of 3-balls and aggressive interior defense never moved beyond the planning phase due to Ohio State’s execution.
The Buckeyes put together the most defining performance of the 2011-12 season and legitimized all the “Ohio State is the best team in America right now” kudos that will follow.
OSU nailed a ridiculous 59 percent of its shots -- a mere 57 percent from beyond the arc. Beyond the box score, however, the Bucks had the backbone to crush a vulnerable opponent when the opportunity arose. That’s the DNA of a champion.
They turned a 26-17 edge with eight minutes to play in the first half into a 19-point halftime lead.
“This basketball team is tough," said Jared Sullinger, who scored a team-high 21 points. "That’s pretty much our motto: mental toughness and physical toughness, and we showed that today."
Against Ohio State’s defense, Duke played like a claustrophobe stuck in a trunk.
Freshman Austin Rivers scored 22 points, but threw away about a half-dozen opportunities because OSU wouldn’t let him finish at the rim. Seth Curry called a timeout on his team’s first possession with Ohio State’s Lenzelle Smith Jr. swarming him. It was a sign of things to come.
A Blue Devils team with a 46 percent success rate from long range before Tuesday’s game hit just 3 of 15 on this night.
A Blue Devils defense that gave up just 61 points in its Maui final victory over Kansas gave up 47 to Ohio State -- in the first half.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said the fatigue from last week’s trip to Hawaii played a role in the Blue Devils’ struggles.
“I thought Ohio State played a great game against us. They were a fresher team,” he said. “I thought our team played tired.”
But getting whipped for 40 minutes will wear down any team.
Despite losing 3-point ace Jon Diebler, versatile performer David Lighty and shot-blocker Dallas Lauderdale to graduation, these Buckeyes might have more potential than last season’s squad, which won 34 games but was knocked out as a 1-seed in the Sweet 16.
They’re more athletic, and with the evolution of Thomas and sophomore point guard Aaron Craft, they’re more versatile on both ends of the floor.
Craft alone held Duke’s guards to four points on 2-of-8 shooting and four turnovers. Thomas entered the game shooting 28 percent from beyond the arc, but connected on 2 of 4 treys Tuesday.
In the first half, former Ohio State stars Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., Daequan Cook, Evan Turner and Michael Redd were introduced at midcourt. Oden, Cook and Conley formed the nucleus of Ohio State’s 2006-07 team, which lost in the national title game to back-to-back champion Florida.
Sullinger said he’s learned from predecessors who fell short of their national championship dreams.
“You just gotta keep your composure,” he said when asked what it will take for this year’s team to fulfill its potential.
Ohio State is as balanced as any team in the country. And with a stud point guard, a consistent wing (William Buford scored 20 points) and a big man like Sullinger, the Buckeyes appear to be as well-equipped for March Madness as any squad in the country.
But coach Thad Matta would like to erase the preceding sentences. The hoopla is premature, he said during his postgame delivery.
He said he’s paranoid about praising his team too early because that’s what happened just before Turner broke his back during the 2009-10 season.
Plus, the program suffered a backlash last season, when Matta’s team won its first 24 games but ultimately ended in disappointment in the NCAA regional semifinal against Kentucky.
Perhaps that’s why he dismissed any comparisons to the 2006-07 team.
“No. Honestly, I don’t. You had some veteran players, you had some seniors,” Matta said when he was asked if he saw any similarities between this season’s team and Oden’s squad.
That team, however, was led by freshmen. This season’s Buckeyes are guided by three outstanding sophomores.
“That team would do things in practice that I had never seen before,” Matta added later.
Well, how many times has a top-five Duke team taken that kind of a beating? Duke’s 63 points and three 3-pointers were both season lows.
“I still think this team has so far to go,” Matta concluded.
The latter is understandable for a coach who doesn’t want young players to get overconfident. And based on the multiple years he’s had where in-season success failed to match postseason projections, Matta's refusal to get too excited about the victory makes sense.
But Matta can’t completely disregard what happened here at Value City Arena. His young roster dominated a previously unbeaten Duke team in every area of the game.
That doesn’t guarantee any success in the future. But as of now, it’s undeniable proof that the Buckeyes are as good as, and probably better than, any team in the country.
“What can I say -- this basketball team is something special,” Sullinger said.
He probably shouldn’t convey that thought to his coach.
But most who watched Tuesday’s game would agree.