COLUMBUS, OHIO, JAN. 18 -- There is a perfect 14-0 record, a glittering berth at No. 4 in the rankings and a spot atop the Big Ten standings -- yet doubt continues to trail Ohio State's fast break to national acceptance.

Fortuitous scheduling, say the naysayers, pointing to a forgiving slate; the Buckeyes win their first seven by an average of 42 points. Perhaps there'll be a slip-up Saturday night at home against Illinois, they say.

If not, just wait until Monday night in Bloomington, when the Buckeyes face third-ranked Indiana. And no way will the team get through unscathed in the subsequent two games, road dates against Minnesota and Michigan State.

The doubters even have a silent partner of sorts, Buckeyes Coach Randy Ayers, who can't quite believe his team is up there with Indiana and North Carolina, which, by extension, puts him, at age 34, alongside Bobby Knight and Dean Smith.

Ayers says to talk to him in about a month about rankings and the Big Ten standings, but his players argue that if things continue the way they're going, a month from now, the Big Ten may be the least of their concerns.

"Coming into this season and looking at the schedule and the way we played against UNLV in last year's NCAA tournament {losing 76-65 in the second round to the eventual champion}, I thought we had a chance to do something good this year but I didn't know how good," said point guard Mark Baker. "Now I think it can be good to the point where it's scary."

There is some support for Baker's assessment. Ohio State leads the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 93.9 points a game, while giving up a league-low 64.6. The Buckeyes are second to Indiana, .556 to .553, in field goal percentage, but their opponents have only hit 39 percent of their attempts. In 14 games, just four schools have topped 40 percent, with Iowa the only one to reach 50.

The Buckeyes aren't overwhelmingly tall, but they're deep. The top eight players from last season's 17-13 team are back.

The first seven of those players average at least 15 minutes a game and none is shooting less than 52 percent from the field. Jim Jackson, last season's Big Ten freshman of the year, is averaging a team-high 17.6 points but five players have led Ohio State in scoring this season and six have paced the team in rebounding.

"No one person is leading the team in scoring every night, no one person is doing all the rebounding. We can come at teams from different angles because everyone is capable of having a big night," said Baker. "We have 14 wins but there's only been one game in which everyone has played well. Usually it's just two three guys who carry us -- I think it's a credit to the team that someone can always step forward and produce."

The statistical closeness has led to a closeness off the floor as well, with none of the Buckeyes eager to have the mantle of stardom thrust upon him. Ayres said Ohio State just isn't the same team when Baker (who has passed for 25 assists with just two turnovers in his last three games) isn't on the floor, but it's Jackson who draws the most attention.

He averaged 16.1 points a game last season, setting a freshman record for points while leading the team in minutes played, assists and steals. Ohio State sports information director Chris Snapp calls the 6-foot-6 forward the best Buckeye player he's seen since he's been working at the school, a period that covers nearly 20 years and such talents as Kelvin Ransey, Herb Williams and Clark Kellogg.

Thursday, Jackson approached Snapp with a wink, telling him that he now preferred being called "Jim," or even "J.J." as opposed to the boyish "Jimmy." Asked later if his name preference was sign of approaching egotism, he laughed and said in all sincerity, "I don't think so; I haven't done anything yet but play hard and hope for the best."

So far, that's been good enough for Ohio State. In its poorest shooting effort of the season, the Buckeyes shot just 39 percent from the field against then-12th ranked Georgetown. However, they held the Hoyas to 38 percent and won, 71-60.

The Ohio State players say that should have been the turning point in convincing anyone that they were legitimate. Others, though, question what the outcome of the game in Las Vegas would have been had Alonzo Mourning played, as well as pointing to wins against Chicago State, Wright State and Bethune-Cookman.

"People say that but they don't understand how hard we've worked," said Jackson. "I think we deserve to be where we are; we haven't slacked off because of who's out there against us -- we've been playing against the game."

Ayres also defends the schedule, pointing out that while there was obviously a bushelful of talent returning from 1989-90, there were still a number of things that needed to be worked on.

"We went to Treg Lee as a starter and we had to get Chris Jent {who opened all 30 games last season but has yet to start in 1990-91} comfortable in his role of coming off the bench," said Ayres. "I felt the schedule would get us ready for the conference; we'll play a competitive schedule every year but it's still going to be whatever I think this team needs to be ready come January."

Ayres said he usually puts his team somewhere between Nos. 10 and 15 in the weekly coaches poll and he won't truly be convinced the Buckeyes have made it to the big-time until they've consistently tasted success over a number of seasons.

"The Thompsons, the Knights, the Krzyzewskis -- they're always up there," said Ayres. "You want to be in the top five; it helps in terms of getting the word out, especially for a team with a young coach.

"I'm happy about it but, I can still see things and this is the time of the season that's crucial, when those better teams start separating themselves from everyone else."

If Ohio State can maintain this season's success into the tournament and upcoming years, Ayres will have done a good job of establishing his own program separate from Gary Williams, whom he assisted for three years before Williams took the coaching job at Maryland.

When Williams left, he offered to take Ayres with him to College Park but encouraged him to apply for the Buckeyes' job, promising not to fill his assistant's positions until he knew the result. Initially it seemed Ayres would be moving east, as Ohio State looked at names such as Arkansas Coach Nolan Richardson and former Tennessee coach Don DeVoe.

A product of a single-parent home, who had to readjust his thinking after getting cut by the Chicago Bulls following a career at Miami of Ohio, Ayres ultimately won the job by stressing the importance of the academic and social development of his players.

Although the current team is filled with players whom Williams either coached or recruited, Ayres's low-key approach has had an impact. Unlike the often kamikaze workouts at Cole Field House under Williams, there is almost a sense of detachment here in St. John's Arena.

Ayres watches the action from the opposite end of the floor. When something happens that he doesn't like, the coach gives a sharp burst from his whistle, then shakes his head and walks away. But when he does direct his displeasure at a player, there's obvious unhappiness.

"I'm not a ranter and raver, I pick my spots to get my points across," said Ayres. "I'm more competitive than people believe; if you're not competitive you don't survive."