Although the idea of playing the Big Ten tournament has fallen flat among plenty of media members, the prospect of competing for a championship inside Madison Square Garden holds appeal for Ohio State.
Friday, the Buckeyes will open tournament play at 6:30 p.m. when they face the winner of Thursday’s game between Northwestern and Penn State. It will be their second game at the Garden this season, roughly six weeks removed from a game against Minnesota in mid-January.
Junior guard C.J. Jackson said it’s still exciting to be headed back.
“As a kid you dream of playing in venues like Madison Square Garden,” he said Wednesday. “Being able to play there with a group of guys we love playing with, we just love being with, you can’t really ask for anything better than that.”
It’s a venue that coach Chris Holtmann is plenty familiar with. As the coach at Butler, Holtmann played his conference tournament there in the Big East in each of the last three seasons. The Bulldogs went 0-3 in those games, and it wasn’t until beating the Golden Gophers in January that he earned his first win at the arena.
His focus for this game is on helping the Buckeyes contend with a potential fast start from an opponent riding high after a win on that same floor one day before.
“You just want to enjoy it and have fun and hopefully you can stay as long as you can possibly stay,” he said. “We’ll talk to them about it. I do think there’s a little bit of an advantage when you can have a win under your belt there, so we’ll have to be ready for the jump because that team will have won a game and got a little bit of momentum the night before. It’s a great environment, great atmosphere.
“I have no idea what the ticket sales are going to be like or any of that stuff. Our focus on in our team, but it’s a fun venue and it’s New York City.”
Like every Big Ten team, Ohio State struggled at times when dealing with the compressed schedule foisted upon teams in order to hold this tournament at Madison Square Garden. The good news for the Buckeyes is that the schedule now offers some tired legs multiple opportunities for rest in the coming weeks.
After playing at Indiana on Friday night to close the regular season, the Buckeyes were off Saturday, had a light practice Sunday, practiced Monday and were off Tuesday before fully getting back at it Wednesday. During that time, Holtmann said he’d been under the weather, as had a few assistant coaches.
Once the Big Ten tournament comes to a close, Ohio State will be off for nearly two weeks. Selection Sunday isn’t until March 11, and the soonest the Buckeyes would play would be March 15. Holtmann said he’s spoken with former Butler and current Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens for advice on bridging the gap and has mentioned Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall as another coach he will likely reach out to for advice.
“(Stevens) called me and we were talking about a few other things,” Holtmann said. “He gave me some good ideas and good thoughts from when they were in the Horizon League. I never worked for Brad. I did pick his brain on that and get his thoughts. I don’t know they’re the difference between winning and losing but gave me some good ideas from moving forward.”
The pace of the season affected some of the players with slimmer builds, he said, citing Keita Bates-Diop and Jackson in particular.
“I feel refreshed,” Jackson said. “We had a day off (Tuesday). It’s almost been a week now since we last played, so I feel ready to go now. Back to 100 percent.”
As a freshman last season, Andre Wesson played himself into a key contributing role off the bench down the stretch for the Buckeyes. As a freshman this season, his younger brother, Kaleb Wesson, played his way into the starting lineup and into a spot on the Big Ten’s all-freshman team.
Wednesday, the older brother said he’s got nothing but pride for his younger-but-larger sibling.
“Oh man, I was happy for him,” Andre Wesson said. “I was proud for him. Being his big brother, you just want everything good to happen for him. For that to happen for him, I know that’s one of his goals and one of the things he was really trying to accomplish this year and for that to happen, it’s great.”
I wondered: did Andre get any good-natured ribbing from Kaleb about not having also made the all-freshman team?
“Yeah, of course,” he said with a smile. “That’s just Kaleb, though. He’s going to talk.”