PORTLAND, Oregon – Afterward, Ohio State tried to play it down as any regular game. But as the Buckeyes prepared to open up the PK80 Invitational against No. 17 Gonzaga, their actions spoke louder than their words.
Roughly an hour before the game was schedule to tip inside Veterans Memorial Coliseum, sophomore center Micah Potter was scratched from the lineup with a left ankle injury. That meant freshman Kaleb Wesson, in the fourth game of his collegiate career, was suddenly in line to make his first start.
In the final moments before the opening tip, seemingly each player on the roster made an effort to acknowledge the big man. And for Wesson, he admitted to the whole thing being a little dreamlike – even though the Buckeyes would take their first loss of the season, 86-59, to the Bulldogs.
“Oh yeah, it was surreal,” Wesson told The Dispatch after the game. “You work so hard when nobody’s looking and then you can go out there and everybody’s looking. Oh, I was ready for the opportunity. You go every day in practice and you run over plays so I feel like anybody could’ve been in the starting position and played.”
Wesson fouled out in 25 minutes of playing time and finished with 10 points and four rebounds against a formidable Gonzaga frontcourt. Bulldogs coach Mark Few said his team prepared specifically for Wesson.
“I think he’s one of those legitimate back-to-the-basket guys on the block,” Few said. “He was one guy that we were really concerned with, quite frankly, at the 5, just because he can really score there.”
Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said Wesson performed well in far-from-ideal circumstances.
“I thought Kaleb was good,” he told The Dispatch. “I worried because this is not the kind of game you want to have, being a man down inside. It’s kind of one of the worst teams you’d want (to face) and tomorrow’s kind of the same thing, but I thought he did some good things. He’s always going to battle foul trouble but I thought he did some good things offensively and we’ve got to continue to get better as a team defensively.”
Two games ago, Wesson landed a one-game suspension from Ohio State’s first-year coach for being late to some team events. Late Thursday night, Wesson said he’s over the situation.
“Just move past it,” he said. “You can’t change anything about it and you know you can just help your guys from where you are. Anytime you put on a jersey or anything Ohio State, I’m representing Ohio State and want to help my guys out.”
Standing inside the lower level of the Coliseum with a game against Stanford barely 18 hours away, Holtmann said he’s not sure Potter will be able to play against the Cardinal.
“We’ll see, but I would be doubtful (he’ll play),” he said. “It’s less than 24 hours. I’d like for him to be able to give us some minutes, but if he can’t go, he can’t go. We obviously don’t want to risk further injury or if he can’t help us then he needs to sit. I don’t know. He’s got to continue to do rehab through the night and we’ll see if we can get him better.”
Tuesday in Columbus, Holtmann said Potter was likely to play against the Zags. Afterward, he said the decision to hold Potter out of the lineup was between the player and the training staff.
“We tried to see how he would warm up,” the coach said. “Really in those situations it’s him and the trainer making a decision on if they can go. It’s a pain-tolerance thing right now with an ankle. As soon as he said he didn’t feel comfortable he could do something on it, that was an hour before the game.”
Junior point guard C.J. Jackson said the loss of Potter was critical given the situation.
“It’s a big loss,” he said. “Micah’s a big man, another big body to help us rebound, just be big and a vocal leader. That kind of hurt us that he went down.”
According to plan
As he discussed the Buckeyes, Few made reference to Holtmann’s prior school.
“Chris has done an excellent job of putting the ‘Butler Plan’ in,” he said. “They’re in the gaps and hard to score on the first side. You have to really, really move the ball around and look for an opportunity.”
I asked him if he could further explain what he meant.
“Just, in the right gaps, playing a pack-line style of defense, hitting their assignments, very much on the help side,” he said. “You can’t score on the first side. In order to find open shots, you have to do what these guys do tonight, (hit shots). They did a great job of moving it and swarming out and able to hit some threes.”
Gonzaga was 12 for 25 (48.0 percent) from three, and Josh Perkins himself was 6 for 9. Ohio State had allowed opponents to shoot 35.8 percent (34 for 95) from three in its first four games.
One interesting statistic: in its first four games this season, Ohio State trailed for a combined 4:54 and didn’t trail at all in last Sunday’s win against Northeastern. Against Gonzaga, the Buckeyes trailed for 34:05 and only had the lead for 4:29.
“Poise. I just thought we needed to be a little more poised. Coaches, I think we all can be guilty of saying (that), but I’ve got to do a good job of explaining what that looks like, too. We’ve got to really be specific about what being poised looks like in those moments. We gave them too much easy stuff. We weren’t good defensively the whole night. Our turnovers were in bunches there in the latter part of the first half, so we just challenged them with that.” – Holtmann, asked what he challenged his players with at halftime.