COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The intent was to pose the question delicately, to gently ask Aaron Craft whether or not he wondered if people thought Ohio State assumed the No. 1 ranking rather than ascended to it.
Instead, Craft cut away the pretense and the politeness.“Yeah, like we’re there by default,’’ he said.
Well yeah, like that.
“There are always going to be people who doubts whoever is at the top,’’ the OSU freshman said. “We don’t really worry about that. We can’t change what people think.’’
Actually, maybe Ohio State can.
The Buckeyes’ 87-64 thumping/throttling/thrashing -- pick your painful verb of choice -- of Purdue should at least cause the critics to pause. This was a demolition derby destruction of what many people considered the second-best team in the Big Ten, a team that came to Columbus with just one conference loss and a No. 12 ranking.
And the Bucks treated the Boilermakers like an exhibition game opponent.
While the rest of the country sputtered and spurted its way through the past few days -- down goes Kansas, Syracuse swoons to its third loss in a row, Pitt loses at home -- Ohio State counter-punched with its best effort of the season.
Maybe its best game in years.
After feasting on the weaker half of the Big Ten, the Buckeyes now are starting to chomp away at the upper echelon and the wins have become more, not less, impressive. The comeback against Illinois on the road showed this team’s tenacity and the overpowering win here showed its might.
And whether they were trying to send a message or not, consecutive win No. 21 was a resounding statement to the critics who didn’t believe the Buckeyes really had the stuff of a No. 1.
“We gave a loaded answer to those questions,’’ said OSU freshman Jared Sullinger, who had 17 points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes.
The players and Thad Matta waxed eloquent about the double effort the Buckeyes gave, a smothering effort on the defensive end and an equally overwhelming job on the offensive side.
No question, they were right.
The Boilermakers looked almost tentative in the face of Ohio State’s swarm, wheezing themselves into a 22-9 hole early. The Bucks all but conceded that JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore would get theirs -- and they did, Johnson with 22 and Moore with 16 -- but after that?
The rest of the Boilers shot 11-of-33.
And using that defense to spur the offense, the Buckeyes blistered a Purdue team that routinely hangs its hat on defense.
The Boilermakers came in ranked 12th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 59.4 points a game. Ohio State hung 87 on them, the most points a Purdue team has given up in nearly two years, dating back to an 87-78 loss to Michigan on Feb. 26, 2009.
“We were all about defense in this game,’’ Sullinger said. “As long as we defend, we can be a very special team.’’
But perhaps the most telling number was this one: six. That’s how many Ohio State players finished in double-figures. Fairly or unfairly, these Buckeyes have been regarded as Jared Sullinger and his Backup Singers. The fabulous freshman has earned every bit of the attention he’s been granted, but the big boy’s big numbers have cast a shadow over his teammates.
In theory, you stop Sullinger and you can stop the Buckeyes.
And you can now put that theory right next to that flat Earth notion.
To start the game, Purdue doubled Sullinger every time he touched the ball, with Travis Carroll taking Sullinger on in the post and Johnson sliding down to help.
Except along with being a load under the basket, Sullinger is also a deft passer -- “He’s wise behind his years the way he can pass,’’ David Lighty said -- and he’s perfectly content to be unselfish.
So every time, Sullinger merely kicked the ball out and almost every time, his wide-open shooters sunk their wide-open 3-point shots. Ohio State hit 5 of 6 from behind the arc out of the gate and finished 11-of-19 for the game. (It got so silly that even Sullinger got in the action. He hit a trey himself.)
“There’s no absolute on how to defend him,’’ Purdue coach Matt Painter said of Sullinger. “If you’re able to get into him and pressure him, you might be able to disrupt him. But if you don’t, that’s how they start picking you apart and they get into that flow.’’
William Buford was the recipient of much of Sullinger’s benevolence. The junior finished with a team-high 19 points, draining 5 of 6 from 3, as well as a lesson on the use of the ellipses from his coach.
Buford twisted his ankle in the Buckeyes’ win at Illinois on Saturday. X-rays revealed no problems and Matta dismissed it as ‘nothing major’ on the Big Ten conference call on Monday. Still, the coach wanted to make sure Buford was all right before the team’s shootaround on Tuesday.
“I sent him a text and asked how he was feeling,’’ Matta said. “And he wrote back, ‘A little sore, dot, dot dot.’’ I said, ‘You don’t dot dot dot me. So we had a long conversation about what dot dot dot means.’’
A delighted Matta admitted he’d never seen quite a box score like the one laid before him after the game -- “It’s rare because I’ve never seen 21-0 before,’’ he said -- and was quick to caution people to not judge Purdue on this loss.
He was, however, less eager to put this win into context for Ohio State.
But Matta is no dummy. He knows he has something special here.
This is a team that is supposed to be wilting under the pressure of a No. 1 ranking and an undefeated record and instead in the postgame, the Buckeyes were promising (threatening?) that more scoreboard music videos were coming.
They are either blissfully ignorant of what they are doing or completely unaffected.
“I think where they have us right now, we are being judged,’’ Matta said.
True, but perhaps a little less harshly now.