It wasn’t a challenge last year to see where coach Chris Holtmann’s first Ohio State team drew its passion: Be it the exuberance of Jae’Sean Tate, the fire of Keita Bates-Diop or the pluckiness of Andrew Dakich, the Buckeyes had options to stoke the fires needed to reach the NCAA Tournament.
Although winning helped fuel those attitudes, it still took the right players capable and willing to fill those roles. Ohio State had no shortage of question marks along those lines entering this season, with those three having departed. Yet three games in, the Buckeyes stand undefeated and as one of only a handful of teams with two true road wins.
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After a 69-60 win Thursday over Creighton in Omaha, Nebraska, Holtmann contemplated the passion of the Buckeyes and where it was coming from. He produced three names: graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods, senior C.J. Jackson and, to a slightly lesser degree, sophomore Kaleb Wesson.
“Those three guys,” Holtmann said. “Our freshmen never stop talking, so in some ways they give us a little bit of energy … but all three of those older guys have been good.”
In particular, those freshmen are guards Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington Jr. Both have played vital roles with their exuberance and prominence in the rotation, but that’s not the kind of passion Holtmann talked about.
It’s something more battle-born, and it was on display late against the Bluejays. Jackson, who had been scoreless, scored the three-pointer with 2:10 that gave the Buckeyes the lead for good. One possession later, freshman Kyle Young added an emphatic dunk that, like Jackson’s three, was set up by Woods.
Creighton coach Greg McDermott is known for taking away other teams’ set plays, and that helped the Bluejays climb back into the game. To counter, Holtmann said the Buckeyes relied on their flow and not their sets for the final moments. It’s perhaps not coincidental that this was when Woods and Jackson came up big.
“I know all my reads,” Woods said. “I had a shooter in the corner (in Jackson), so I knew if I couldn’t get (my shot) up, I knew he was going to be ready to shoot. So I kicked it. Then I knew how the (Creighton) big was playing. All I had to do was act like I was going to shoot my floater and they didn’t have any help on the weak side, so I just dumped it down (to Young). It’s all reads, really.”
Woods, a Wake Forest transfer, scored 15 of his 19 points in the first half. Although Jackson struggled for much of the game, Holtmann said he stuck with him because he knows his role, to make big shots.
“It’s what seniors do,” Holtmann said. “If he doesn’t take that shot, I’m not playing him. He knows he’s coming out if he’s not going to shoot that shot.”
Jackson said he recently talked with junior Andre Wesson, who also joined the program for the 2016-17 season, about their growing influence on the team.
“We didn’t want to come in (as newcomers) just taking all the shots or come in forcing plays that weren’t there,” Jackson said. “Now, we’re in that lead to make more plays and a little bit more is on our shoulders.”
Ohio State next plays South Carolina State, a bottom-20 team in the KenPom.com rankings, on Sunday at Value City Arena in what will be a different test of passion and leadership for Woods and Jackson. Woods has consistently referenced how connected the players are, and several teammates have used the same word. As a newcomer, Woods said he was quickly brought up to speed with the culture Holtmann and his staff are building.
Now that connectivity has to continue to grow, under the tutelage of its backcourt leaders.
“Through a couple road tests and a home challenge, I think we’re good with that,” Holtmann said. “I think that’s a strength for us right now, but I’m interested to see how consistent that is.”