If Ohio State is to find success against No. 5 North Carolina on Saturday afternoon, it’s not likely that Wofford’s win against the Tar Heels on Wednesday night will have paved the way.
In what various analytics websites have billed as the biggest upset of the season, the third-smallest school in Division I went to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and knocked off the No. 5 Tar Heels, 79-75. They did it with some analysis-defying shots, a number of uncharacteristic North Carolina turnovers and some old-fashioned gumption.
The Buckeyes are expecting a different Tar Heels team than the one the nation most recently saw.
“We know they’re a good team,” junior Keita Bates-Diop said Thursday morning. “I saw the end of it, but one game doesn’t define them. They’ve played (a lot) of games and we know they’re a good team.”
While it might’ve been the biggest upset of the season, it’s hardly the only one to raise eyebrows. Just since Thanksgiving, for example, Duke lost at Boston College and Indiana got pummeled at home by Fort Wayne two days after an overtime win against Notre Dame.
It’s kept Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann constantly on edge as the Buckeyes have handled challenges from mid-major foes William & Mary, Appalachian State and the Citadel in building a season-best five-game winning streak.
“(Wednesday) night’s a unique game as we see all across the country,” he said. “As we’ve watched (the Tar Heels) play, both home and away, they were up on Michigan by 30 with 10 minutes to go. They can be really, really explosive. Obviously Wofford played exceptionally well (Wednesday) night. Wofford made some incredible shots, too. Let’s give them credit. Some of those you just have to, on a night like that say, ‘Listen, you know…’ ”
Senior forward Jae’Sean Tate said Ohio State has an idea of what to expect Saturday in New Orleans.
“We know that they’re going to be looking to throw their best punch to get back (after) losing at home,” he said. “We’ve got to be prepared for them to be locked in. North Carolina’s a great team. The way their offense flows, the tempo, we’ve got to be prepared for that.”
Amid the individual performances that helped the Buckeyes to a lopsided win against the Citadel on Tuesday night was perhaps the most impactful of the season from sophomore forward Andre Wesson. After having missed the entire summer with an undisclosed medical condition, Wesson has had to work extra hard just to get back to the expected level of fitness.
Then, factoring in the adjustment of playing for a new coaching staff, it’s been a tough start to the year for Wesson. It was encouraging for the Buckeyes to see him score seven points and grab three rebounds in 18 minutes, but most importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over.
“Defensive versatility, awareness, the ability to guard different people and switch on balls,” Holtmann said when asked what Wesson’s role is on this team. “I think we need rebounding from him defensively and offensively. I do think he sees things as a player with his skill level that can help this team in terms of passing and playmaking some. He just has to clean up his turnover issue and we have to do a better job of helping him do that. I think he’s done a little bit better job of taking care of the ball, not turning it over. He still has some footwork issues we’ve got to continue to work on, but his awareness and feel, he’s been coached really well. He’s got an IQ for the game that’s important for us and we need that out there on the floor.”
As a freshman, Wesson committed 18 turnovers in 336 minutes. Entering the Citadel game, he had 19 turnovers in 163 minutes while playing behind leading scorers Bates-Diop and Tate.
“Any time you’re out the length that he was out, it’s conditioning, it’s touch and feel, it’s all those things,” Holtmann said. “And then I think he, like the rest of our guys, had to understand … our expectation here of how we feel like you can really help our team play well and play better. You’ve got an opportunity to really embrace that and really do that and play to your strengths, and in these last few games he’s really done that. That’s been important for us.”
It’s been a little more than three years since Holtmann, in his first season as Butler’s coach, faced North Carolina. In that game, which opened up the Battle 4 Atlantis, the Bulldogs beat – wait for it – the No. 5 Tar Heels, 74-66.
It was an early signature win for Holtmann as he shaped the program in his image. Now he’s got another chance against the same school to do the same at Ohio State.
“It was one of your coaching moments that you reflect back on and you’ll never forget because when you’re coaching a new group and you just got the position and you’ve been named interim and you’re kind of on a day-to-day contract, to have a moment like that for us as a group and as a team after what we’d been through was pretty special given the caliber of program that we were playing,” Holtmann said. “Coach (Roy) Williams was very gracious in that moment in the Bahamas. Incredibly gracious. Said very kind things. That was a special moment. “
North Carolina then closed the Butler chapter of his career with a 92-80 win in the Sweet Sixteen last season.
“I counter that (early win) with a really difficult moment two years later when they really manhandled us last year,” he said. “It was never really a game that was in reach. Maybe we cut it to 8-10 (points) in the second half. I’ve got some good and certainly some sour memories from competing (with them).”