This had every indication of a challenging game for No. 17 Ohio State even before Sunday morning posed a challenging turn of events.
As by now you’re no doubt aware, the Buckeyes announced the indefinite suspension of fifth-year shooting guard Kam Williams roughly two hours before the opening tip against Illinois. Although not a strong ball handler, the absence of a guard when facing the type of pressure the Fighting Illini bring was one more hurdle for Ohio State to overcome.
Williams has traded time in the starting lineup with freshman Musa Jallow earlier in the season, but it wasn’t the youngster who earned the start in his place. That instead went to sophomore Andre Wesson, who started at small forward and forced coach Chris Holtmann to make other adjustments down the line.
Technically, senior Jae’Sean Tate started as the point guard with junior C.J. Jackson playing off the ball. It resulted in a never-before-seen lineup, and Wesson opened the game with a left-handed dunk out of an out-of-bounds play on the first Ohio State possession of the game.
His parents, who have not missed a game all season, were in their seats and filming the pregame starter introductions, when both Andre and younger brother Kaleb were announced in the lineup. It was Kaleb Wesson’s 21st career start, but he said he didn’t say much to his older brother.
“Oh, I just told him it’s just basketball,” he said. “Nothing new that we haven’t done. Just play basketball.”
In Williams’ absence, Andre Wesson played 26 minutes, two shy of his career-high. Jallow, who has been averaging 10.2 minutes per Big Ten game, saw 13 minutes against Illinois.
“I think Musa gave us really good minutes today,” Holtmann said. “I think he gave us a good defensive approach. He was aggressive and active. I was really pleased with Musa. His minutes are probably going to increase a little during this stretch. We just want him to be ready to make open shots, be aggressive, come in and give us a great defensive presence.
“In terms of who we started, I don’t know that we’re set that it’s always going to be Andre, but we felt like we wanted another ball-handler to come off the bench and that’s why we wanted to bring (Andrew) Dakich off the bench, just because we knew it would be hard for JT and C.J. to be the only primary ball-handlers. I thought Andre did a very nice job, particularly defensively late he was great.”
Junior Keita Bates-Diop, who scored a career-high 35 points, said the Buckeyes had to change some of their offensive plans without Williams in the lineup.
“We know Dre can shoot it,” he said. “Not as much as Kam, obviously, but Dre’s a bigger body and we switched a lot more with Dre out there. It was a little weird in the beginning but we figured it out as the game went on.”
Illinois has caused at least 10 turnovers in every game this season. Nine minutes in today, Ohio State already had committed six while falling behind by 15 points.
The Illini essentially overplay everyone, making simple plays like ball reversals exceedingly difficult. The Buckeyes eventually adjusted, but I’m not sure they ever really got comfortable against it.
“I’m just glad we got the win because it was a tough game with a lot of pressure,” Bates-Diop said. “It was unlike any game we’ve played this season. We tried (to simulate) it with our scout team, but they’re a lot smaller and not as quick as Illinois. We did the best we could but we figured it out as the game went on.”
Added Holtmann, “Our defense got better, but the way they play, it takes a little time because there’s very few teams in the country that play like this defensively. You go into it with a game plan, you talk about the pressure, we prepared for three days for it, and you see it with their athleticism and it’s different. I think getting a feel for it was as important as anything.”
Bates-Diop had a season-high six turnovers and Jackson had four in what was a tough night for the junior guard. He finished 2 of 11 from the field and missed all four of his three-point attempts, ending his streak of at least one three-pointer at 20 games.
“It (the Illinois pressure) can wear you out, and there was some fatigue associated with some of his missed shots as much as anything,” Holtmann said of Jackson. “I’d give more credit to Illinois. His response there when he had struggled to make some shots and then he made some free throws late and made some plays and finished at the basket, that’s a real step for C.J. because we all know he can get down on himself. When you’re playing with one point guard and in some ways he’s as comfortable off the ball as he is with the ball in his hands, that’s a lot for him. I thought his ball handling improved as the game went on.”
Bates-Diop’s 35 points were the second-most scored in Value City Arena, five short of Jared Sullinger’s record. As he headed to the free-throw line late, the Ohio State student section chanted, “MVP! MVP!”
Illinois coach Brad Underwood didn’t argue after the game.
“I think Keita showed why he’s MVP of our league,” he said.
Two new players for the class of 2019 posted to Twitter that they landed new scholarship offers from the Buckeyes today while on unofficial visits.
Before the game, it was Anthony Harris, a four-star guard prospect according to 247Sports.com from Fairfax (Va.) Paul VI Catholic.
Blessed to say I’ve received an offer from Ohio State University #GOBUCKEYES pic.twitter.com/lnRf2AbFLG— ️Ant_harris#3™ (@MANZANT3) February 4, 2018
After the game, it was David Johnson, also a four-star guard prospect according to 247Sports who hails from Louisville (Ky.) Trinity.
Blessed to receive an offer from The Ohio State University #GOBUCKEYES pic.twitter.com/2BzYhHtAs2— David johnson ひ (@_daveordavid_) February 4, 2018
One of the final recruiting misses of the Thad Matta was in uniform today for Illinois. Freshman guard Mark Smith came off the bench and scored four points with one rebound, one steal and one turnover in 16 minutes, scoring all of his points at the free-throw line.
He entered the game averaging 6.6 points, 1.5 rebounds and 1.4 assists for the Illini. I asked coach Brad Underwood about that, and in mid question he said, “Glad they didn’t get him.”
Then, when I finished my question, here is what he had to say about Smith’s season.
“He’s going to be a great player,” he said. “I think he goes through what maybe every freshman has gone through at some point, a little up and down. He’s practicing great. He got poked in the eye in the Rutgers game, which kind of sidelined him for the better part of a half. But he’s a guy that can score, he can play multiple positions, he’s one of our best shooters. As he gets accustomed to the defensive part, and he is, he’s going to be a heck of a player here.”
“Buckeye Nation was unbelievable tonight. Goodness gracious, Buckeye Nation was unbelievable. We’ve got two more home games and hopefully we’ll continue. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this is a fun team to watch. Hopefully we’ve earned that at this point in the season. It’s deep into the season right now, so people saying, ‘Well, let’s see how they do,’ that’s not an excuse anymore. They were incredible. The energy they brought, unbelievable.” – Holtmann, on a season-high crowd of 18,743