There was plenty to be concerned about when No. 23 Ohio State prepared for Samford. Playing on the shortest turnaround of the year, the newly ranked Buckeyes would host a Bulldog team with strong guard play and a big man averaging nearly a double-double per game at 17.0 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.
Then, as Ohio State was getting its gameday preparations underway, a handful of players were late. As a result, coach Chris Holtmann made the decision to replace four of his customary five starters against a team that was going to challenge the Buckeyes with zone pressure and heady play. It wasn’t a decision made lightly, or one that was for some sort of egregious mistake.
Instead, it sent a message. And in the process, Ohio State persevered with a 68-50 win against Samford that pushed it to 5-0 on the season. From preparation to the final whistle, there was plenty for the Buckeyes to learn about themselves from this game.
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Holtmann had two reasons why a game like this was needed for this team at this point of the season.
“One, I think they’re going to win some game and be a quality team and have a quality season,” he said. “Two, I think that playing a team that has this different of a style, they came in very confident being 5-0 and we gave them some life early. There’s a lot that can be taken from this game.”
The starting lineup of C.J. Jackson, Duane Washington Jr., Keyshawn Woods, Musa Jallow and Jaedon LeDee entered the game having seen action together in only the Creighton and Purdue Fort Wayne games, putting together a plus-3 rating (13 points scored, 10 allowed) in 3:58.
Prior starters Luther Muhammad, Kaleb Wesson, Andre Wesson and Kyle Young all eventually worked their way into the game. Kaleb Wesson and Muhammad both checked in with 17:34 left in the first half and the Samford lead at 7-2. Andre Wesson was next, replacing Jallow at the first media timeout with Samford’s lead up to 11-4 with 15:46 to play. Young, who was the last player to take the court for pregame warmups, didn’t enter until 10:40 remained in the half and the Bulldogs lead at 15-12.
Kaleb Wesson, who sat out the third game of his freshman season for similar reasons, said the message was received and will pay dividends down the road.
“I feel like that helped a lot as far as me and the young guys,” he said. “Sometimes we lose focus and stuff like that brings us back down and lets us know that this is important. The little things are going to get us beat one day. To get that nipped in the bud here early in the season really helped.”
Added Woods, who made his first start for the Buckeyes, “All our guys can start. We feel like anybody can come out and start the game. Yeah, it wasn’t the start we wanted, but when your number is called you have to be ready to go and those guys (did their jobs).”
Samford coach Scott Padgett said he didn’t know the reasoning behind the lineup change but tried to spin the situation to fire up his team.
“We tried to use it as motivation: hey they’re not even starting their starters,” he said. “I don’t think he was doing that in the game, but we used it as that. I don’t know, maybe we should’ve told them, ‘Hey look, now they’re worried about you, they put their regular guys in for the second half.’ I thought the normal starters, when they came in they did their jobs.”
Samford’s style of play made this a less-than-ideal team to deal with such a situation, Holtmann said.
“This is a really hard team to guard, and on top of that you’re throwing them against a zone,” he said. “I thought about that (having an impact), but I just felt it was the right decision. I thought they did fine. In their defense, that’s a little bit difficult. You’re going against zone, which you’ve seen mostly man, and then you’re playing a team that’s very hard to guard.”
“We’re going to make that decision regardless of who we play,” he said.
Ohio State’s most-experienced player had a career night in the home opener, when he put up a career-high 25 points in a bigger-than-expected 107-61 win against Purdue Fort Wayne. That night, he was 8 of 11 from the floor, 4 of 7 from three and had five assists with two turnovers.
Since then, Jackson is 6 for 26 (23.1 percent) from the floor, 2 for 13 (15.4 percent) from three and has eight assists and eight turnovers. He did chip in nine defensive rebounds against Samford, though, tying a career high.
“He’s got to play a more consistent floor game,” Holtmann said. “Has to. But I just said that exact thing to him in there. I thought he let his offense affect his defense in the first half. He’s got to play a better floor game, and we’ve been saying that for a few games now. His assists need to go up and his turnovers need to go down. I just think he needs to play better in that area and he will.”
He did have one particularly noteworthy play to help spark the second-half turnaround, though, when he leaped over the row of courtside chairs to save a loose ball. It led to a three-pointer by his brother at the other end to pull the Buckeyes within one at 35-34 and forced a Samford timeout.
“I felt like it got our crowd into it a lot,” Woods said. “I felt like that sparked our run.”
“I think it was a momentum play for sure because the energy around our crowd,” he said. “It was a fantastic series of saves by he, Luther and somehow Key was involved. I had my eyes shut for most of it, but it was a fantastic hustle play that I really think was critical because it livened up our crowd.”
In order to try and mitigate Kaleb Wesson’s presence, the Bulldogs went with a pressuring zone designed to try and limit his touches. In addition, Samford tried to control the tempo as much as possible by walking the ball up the court, applying some full-court zone pressure on defense and then resuming it in the half court.
It definitely had an impact on the flow of the game and helped stymie Ohio State early.
“I wouldn’t always say (we took) the right shots,” Holtmann said. “We had some rushed shots and we had some shots that were just not really in the flow of what we do, particularly in the first half. Some of that is our guys finding their way around it. Any time you play a team that is going to walk the ball up the floor on offense, which we hadn’t seen them do a whole lot, but they clearly wanted to slow the pace of the game down, and then they wanted to zone, press and back into zone, really slow the tempo.
“You’ve got to adjust to that, and we didn’t always do it very well and the shot selection is something we’ll have to get better at.”
Both teams played Sunday, and Holtmann was asked if the quick turnaround had anything to do with his team’s shooting numbers.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe there was some tired legs. There very well could have been some tired legs. I don’t think we had a guy play more than (25) minutes the other night. I think we had a hard time adjusting to their zone. It’s different when you see that much zone. It’s a different feel.”
Woods said he liked Ohio State’s approach to the zone.
“We were patient,” he said. “In the first half we didn’t hit shots. We got good looks, we ran our stuff, we got what we wanted, we just couldn’t hit shots. In the second half we still got good looks. Everybody got rolling. I feel like we did great attacking their zone.”
*Samford hit exactly half of its 28 first-half shots. It was the best-shooting half for an Ohio State opponent this year.
*The Bulldogs led by seven points not even four minutes into the game. Ohio State’s biggest deficit this season is eight points at Creighton.
*Ohio State has held all five of its opponents to 61 points or fewer. Samford had won its first five games all by double figures.
*Holtmann is 5-0 to start a season for the second time in his eight years as a Division I coach and the first time since he started 8-0 during his final year at Butler in 2016-17.
*Kaleb Wesson had 37 points in his last two games, the most prolific back-to-back scoring performances of his career.
*He has drawn 22 fouls in those two games and committed four.
*Ohio State was 40 for 88 (45.5 percent) from three entering the game but was only 3 for 20 (15.0 percent) against Samford.
Ohio State is now 3-0 against Samford, which was picked to finish eighth in the 10-team Southern Conference. However, Holtmann lauded not just the team but the league as a whole.
“I think this team has all the pieces to have a really solid year,” he said. “They’re similar to a Miami of Ohio that we played last year or a Texas Southern. Their league is really good. Furman beat Villanova, Wofford beat Carolina last year, East Tennessee State’s tremendous.”
So in conclusion…
“It’s a heck of a league and we’re not going to schedule their league much anymore,” he said with a laugh.
Samford was 5-0 for the first time since the 1996-97 team. The Bulldogs last made the NCAA Tournament in 2000. They lost to Ohio State on No. 29, 2008, by a stunning 59-22 score.
“I think this group has leadership that comes from a lot of different voices at times. You’ll hear Kaleb and then C.J. and Joey and Keyshawn and then other times a couple of our freshmen. It’s good that it comes from a lot of different voice and not just from me. It wasn’t fire and brimstone. You’ll know when I’m really upset because I’ll come back with a bruised hand right about here and sometimes a broken bone. That means I hit the board, but it was none of that. We just needed to play better.” – Holtmann, on what halftime was like