CINCINNATI — There’s only so much a team can learn about itself through the grind of a preseason. Practices stack on practices, tendencies are known and the daily competitions come with the caveat that playing time, not actual game results, will be what is decided.
So as the 2018-19 Ohio State men’s basketball team began the process of starting to develop roles and build an identity, every question looking ahead to the start of the season came against this backdrop. Basically, we wouldn’t know until we all saw it when the lights were on and paying customers were in the stands.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
In a long-anticipated matchup that served as the season opener, the Buckeyes got their first answers. And while there’s obviously plenty of basketball to be played, the early returns were solid. In a hostile environment against a crowd desperately searching for a reason to explode, Ohio State fended off a series of late challenges to earn a 64-56 win against Cincinnati.
“I think we responded well (to adversity),” coach Chris Holtmann said. “I want a bigger sample size before I make too many proclamations about how we’ll handle that, but I thought we handled it pretty well. I’ve probably got to handle myself a little bit better with the officials at times. This was certainly a good test on that end. I think at times we really responded well.”
First, the Buckeyes weathered the early storm — and it wasn’t pretty. Ohio State opened the game by missing its first five shots, committing four fouls and turning the ball over three times. Two of those fouls went to Andre Wesson, a key component to how this team plans to play defensively.
But at that end of the court, Ohio State didn’t quit and Cincinnati continued to hurl up brick after first-half brick. The Buckeyes took the lead at 4-3 and never trailed again, even as the final moments got nervy.
“It was just a game where everyone was feeling their way around, especially in the beginning,” senior C.J. Jackson said. “But then guys started making plays down the stretch and we went to the hot hand at the time.”
There were several. Jackson had the game-clincher with a contested, driving layup he banked in from the right block in the final moment that pushed it back to a six-point lead. Cincinnati put together a 7-0 run to pull within 41-32, but Kaleb Wesson hit a pair of free throws and then Kyle Young nabbed an offensive rebound and scored while being fouled, all in mid-air, to stem the tide.
Freshman Luther Muhammad answered a three-pointer with one of his own with 5:23 left to push the lead back to 16 points, but he was called for a technical for something he said immediately afterward to give Cincinnati some momentum that it finally seized upon. An 8-0 run cut the deficit in half until Wesson, who has worked on his outside game all offseason, hit his first three-pointer of the night to answer.
“The play Keyshawn (Woods) made late there to find Kaleb at the top of the key was a tremendous play, showed great poise in the midst of a pretty incredible environment,” Holtmann said.
“I think we found out what kind of guys we’ve got, just guys that really care,” Jackson said. “You can’t go wrong. Everybody’s going to make mistakes. It’s a long game and it’s new. We’re a new team, new faces, so as long as they give their all you can’t really ask for anything else.”
Kaleb Wesson emerged for the game with a protective brace on his right knee. Tuesday, Holtmann said the Buckeyes were dealing with bumps and bruises but nothing that would keep anyone out of the lineup.
Wesson said it was a precautionary measure after he took a knock during practice three or four days ago.
“I just banged it in practice,” he said. “It wasn’t like I had to sit out. I didn’t sit out any days or anything. It was just precautionary reasons so I don’t get banged up again.”
We’re still getting a feel for who Holtmann trusts on this team as he’s still learning that at the same time. When Cincinnati cut it to 41-32, here’s the lineup Holtmann went with out of the ensuing timeout:
Keyshawn Woods, Duane Washington, Musa Jallow, Kyle Young and Kaleb Wesson.
Then late in the game, with the lead at 55-45, he came out of a timeout and went with Jackson, Woods, Muhammad, Young and Kaleb Wesson.
There’s plenty to break down from this game, but here are a few things I noticed during the game.
• With Ohio State rolling at one point, Cincinnati called timeout. As it advanced the ball past halfcourt and did so, Muhammad still took a quick swipe at the ball to try and dislodge it before the timeout could be called.
• Freshman Duane Washington showed zero fear in his first collegiate game. He was bouncing as he took the court, scored his first career points on a three-pointer he calmly swished from the left corner and played with poise.
• Kaleb Wesson played some exceptional early defense. He had to defend a guard on the perimeter for several dribbles and did so effectively, and he finished with two blocks.
• Musa Jallow’s athleticism was apparent. So was Kyle Young’s.
• Woods hit a jumper and then put his finger to his lips to shush the crowd during the first half.
Kaleb Wesson’s game has been the subject of plenty of offseason scrutiny. In addition to wanting to expand his game to the perimeter, Wesson has said on multiple occasions that he wants to dunk more than he did last season – that is to say, he wants to dunk, period.
He did both tonight. Which one did he enjoy more?
“The dunk,” he said, without hesitation. “A lot of people get on me about dunking. It’s the dunk. I throw it in y’all faces.”
What did the three feel like, though?
“It just fed into my preparation,” he said. “I practice my shots every day in the gym. Taking that shot felt comfortable.”
After Micah Potter left the team Monday, it seemed logical to conclude that freshman Jaedon LeDee would be thrust into a bigger role that originally anticipated. I wrote about it, I talked about it on the podcast and I entered the game expecting to see LeDee log some important minutes.
Shows what I know, right? LeDee, alongside classmate Justin Ahrens, did not see any game action. Partially because of Cincinnati’s matchups and partially because of his personnel, Holtmann said the Buckeyes plan to play a lot of three-guard lineups. That was very much the case Wednesday night.
“You just don’t see a team that switches as much as they switch across the board, and they did a really good job of going man to zone a lot,” he said. “It’s difficult to play against, so we tried to keep it really as basic and as simple as possible and C.J. made a great play there (at the end).”
The fact that this game was even taking place was as much a point of emphasis for this game as anything. Before the game, the crowd was treated to an Ohio State-centric hype video. During an in-game timeout, both athletic directors were presented with ceremonial basketballs to commemorate the game.
The play on the court didn’t always match the expectations, but Holtmann praised what he experienced.
“What an incredible atmosphere that was,” he said. “I think we anticipated a game that was going to have a great environment. We knew we were going against an extremely hard-playing, well-coached team but this environment tonight was beyond maybe even what I had anticipated. Credit to everyone who was here. I thought their fans gave them great life and great energy and made a run on us and we didn’t always handle that as well as we needed to.”
Jackson said he appreciated what the night meant to the sport.
“We definitely knew it was going to be a raucous crowd,” he said. “A couple of my friends couldn’t get tickets because they sold out so fast. We knew their crowd was a big part in how they were going to play. Their crowd was pretty amazing for it to be the first game.”
Wesson, though, didn’t want to relish the role of spoiler too much.
“It’s a little Devil’s Advocate because Sunday we’ve got a home opener,” he said. “We’ve got to keep level headed.”
• Ohio State has not lost a season opener since a 76-65 road loss to San Francisco on Nov. 21, 2003.
• Cincinnati had won 26 straight home games since a 77-70 to Temple on Dec. 29, 2015.
• Young set a career high with 10 points and tied a career high with eight rebounds. He did not commit a foul and drew six Cincinnati fouls, a new statistic in the official box scores this year.
• Muhammad was a game-best plus-15.
• Ohio State was called for 22 fouls compared to Cincinnati’s 19.
• All eight Ohio State players to see action made at least one field goal.
“I was pleased with our poise. We made shots like I thought we would, but it’s really too early for me to make any statements about how we’re going to be. I’m more interested in how we’re going to respond in practice tomorrow than making any grand statements about where we are as a team right now.” — Holtmann