This won’t be the last time we all get to do this.
On Friday night, No. 23 Ohio State improved to 6-0 with an 89-62 win against Cleveland State that will be remembered barely for what happened on the court and primarily for where the court was located. Across the river and almost catty-corner from Value City Arena, the Buckeyes hosted the Vikings inside a sold-out St. John Arena in what felt like as much a celebration of the program’s history as a referendum on this year’s season.
Ohio State never trailed and would lead by as many as 30 in a game that was decided moments into the second half. It was the first time the men’s basketball team had played here since 2010, and coach Chris Holtmann said it won’t be another eight years before the next one.
“It was a fun night and something we anticipate doing on a regular basis,” he said during his opening statement. “Obviously the Schottenstein Center is our home, and we recognize that, but this was a fun night for our fans and our basketball community and Buckeye Nation.”
Holtmann thanked everyone from athletic director Gene Smith to everyone from marketing to social media to trademark and branding as well as the arena staff for making the game possible. Then when asked, he said the staff has talked about holding perhaps a Big Ten game here.
“We want to get some feedback on how this night was,” he said. “I know logistically it’s a lot of work. There are questions about the amenities, but it’s not something we have said no to. We have considered it. Is it something we’d do? Would we do two games a year? I don’t think it would be more than that, but I do think it we’d like to make it an annual thing and we have talked about potentially a Big Ten opponent.”
Interestingly, Ohio State revealed a plan in January of 2017 that would eventually demolish the building and replace it with academic buildings and outdoor recreational space for students. It will be without a permanent occupant when the Covelli Center is slated to open next year and host volleyball, gymnastics, fencing and wrestling.
In an interview with The Dispatch earlier this month, former Buckeye Curt Moody, who helped design Value City Arena, said his firm is part of a study that would re-do St. John Arena. You can read about it in this story.
For tonight, at least, it was home for the men’s basketball team. That meant that junior forward Andre Wesson and sophomore center Kaleb Wesson got to play in the same arena that their dad, Keith, played in during his career in the mid-80s.
Not that their dad talked much about it, apparently.
“See, my dad, he’s weird,” Andre Wesson said. “He doesn’t really talk about his playing days. If we ask him, he’ll talk about it but he doesn’t really talk about it out of the blue. Obviously he’s done some great things here. He has an NIT championship, I think went to a Sweet Sixteen. He’s definitely have his fair share of moments here.”
The players bussed to St. John from Value City Arena, and both Wesson brothers said it was a special night for the family. As players, though, it was largely business as usual.
“I wouldn’t say it’s anything different,” Andre Wesson said. “Obviously all our stuff is at the Schott so we had to bus over here right before the game and we didn’t really have a locker. That was probably the only difference. Obviously with everything being on top of you at St. John, it’s a little bit louder. I love the Schott too. When it’s filled and it’s rocking, it’s the same atmosphere.”
The Buckeyes practiced in the arena twice to prepare for the game.
“It’s a great venue,” Holtmann said. “I thought it was terrific. This is a 10 out of 10 for me in terms of this experience and the environment and the feel of the game.”
When Holtmann emerged shortly before the opening tip, he immediately caused a stir on social media and throughout the arena thanks to his wardrobe choice: a salmon-colored, vintage-looking suit coat that fit right in with the vibe of the evening.
Both Wesson brothers were all smiles discussing it after the game.
“That jacket was hot,” Kaleb Wesson said. “Everybody keeps saying the jacket was ugly; I liked the jacket. It’s tough.”
“The jacket was crazy,” Andre Wesson cut in. “A little salmon (colored). It had a little drip to it. It was all right. I like it.”
Asked if the jacket had matching pants, Holtmann said no before discussing his outfit.
“The story behind the jacket is I do have a tailor,” he said. “He does a great job. He said, ‘Hey, is there a special game you’d want a special jacket?’ I was like, ‘Nah, no, I’m good. Dark suit, scarlet tie most games, I’m good with that.’
“My wife, unfortunately, was in the room and she piped in and said, ‘Yeah, we’ve got a game over at St. John Arena. Let’s make a special jacket for that.’ ”
The jacket arrived roughly a month ago and today was the first time Holtmann said he put it on.
“I walked downstairs, looked in the mirror and I had some serious second thoughts,” he said. “If my wife was not there pushing me out the door, probably you’d have seen me in a dark suit.”
Played on the eve of the football team’s annual showdown with rival Michigan, the looming game lingered over the evening at St. John Arena. The Nuthouse student section sang “We Don’t Give A Damn For The Whole State Of Michigan” multiple times during the game, and Holtmann came into his press conference wearing a No. 45 football jersey.
“Who’s ready to talk some football, huh?” he said as he squished his way into the cramped, makeshift interview room.
After discussing the game and the environment for roughly a minute, Holtmann smiled and said, “I can’t wait to sit back tomorrow and be a fan, and I’m going to be one heck of a fan. I’m looking forward to this. Obviously my first (Michigan) game to be a part of. I’m going to sit back and scream at the officials and maybe have an adult beverage.”
Then he stopped himself.
“Hold on – the game’s at noon, right?” he said. “OK, maybe not. Check that. But I am going to enjoy being a fan and supporting our group and our guys, hall-of-fame head coach and coaching staff. I’m excited about sitting back and just watching this one.”
Last year, during Holtmann’s first season at Ohio State, the Buckeyes were in Portland, Oregon, for the PK80 Invitational and obviously could not attend the game.
The Wesson brothers were asked for score predictions for the game.
Kaleb Wesson started with, “I know we’re coming out on top.”
Andre Wesson then followed with, “We’re going to win. I’ll say 31-28, us.”
Which team out-toughed the other? It depends on which coach you ask. In pointing out that his roster consists of multiple freshmen who could still be high school seniors, Cleveland State coach Dennis Felton said his team wore out against the bigger, more physical Buckeyes.
“They’re a team that plays really hard with a lot of physicality,” Felton said of the Buckeyes. “We knew we were going to be challenged by those things. We executed a lot of the things we wanted to, it’s just that our young guys weren’t tough enough with the ball a lot of the times and just let them bully us and take our ball from us too many times.”
In his opening statement, though, Holtmann expressed concern with his team’s physicality despite holding a size advantage on the Vikings.
“I thought they really physically challenged us and were the tougher team, certainly, for 20 minutes of the game,” he said. “But it was good for us. It was good to see us respond.”
A pair of future Buckeyes were in attendance for the game and will take in the football game: DJ Carton from Bettendorf, Iowa, and Ohio native Alonzo Gaffney. They sat behind the Ohio State bench.
From ace photographer @KRobPhoto, here's #Buckeyes 2019 signee Alonzo Gaffney at tonight's game. He's in the blue. pic.twitter.com/Hn7WpgRsVI— Adam Jardy (@AdamJardy) November 24, 2018
Holtmann was asked if this game, coupled with the Michigan game not even 24 hours later, led to more attendance interest from recruits.
“Did we get more interest for this particular game?” he said. “Oh yeah. The one difference from this game is most guys are playing. We had DJ Carton and Alonzo Gaffney here, but most of our recruits are playing this weekend. We wanted to get them here for this game and obviously tomorrow’s game. We just haven’t been able to get as many as we’d like because they’re playing. That’s unfortunate because they’re going to miss a tremendous atmosphere and outstanding game.”
Also from our @KRobPhoto, here's 2019 #Buckeyes signee DJ Carton smiling at tonight's game: pic.twitter.com/3PKcmkWKrM— Adam Jardy (@AdamJardy) November 24, 2018
I spoke with Gaffney for an update on his season and will have that posted in the next few days.
All 10 recruited scholarship players saw first-half action. That included Justin Ahrens, who made the earliest appearance of his career when he subbed in with 8:40 left in the first half and Cleveland State on a 7-0 run that made it a 20-17 Buckeyes lead. He would play for 3:26 and miss one shot, but he canned a three-pointer during the second half and finished with 7:42 of playing time while also adding a block.
The substitutions were equally to do with the way the game unfolded – in particular, Holtmann’s displeasure with the Buckeyes getting beaten to loose balls – and the plan coming in.
“A little bit of both,” the coach said. “Frustrated, with a couple moments. I thought guys came in and gave us pretty good, I thought Justin came in and gave us pretty solid minutes for a minute or two.”
The desire to see some different options also led to the decision to sit Kyle Young with two fouls and 11:27 to play in the half. Cleveland State promptly went on an 8-2 run encompassing the 7-0 run proceeding Ahrens’ insertion.
The two situations weren’t unrelated.
“He was active and probably our most active interior guy,” Holtmann said of Young, who finished with eight points and three offensive rebounds in 16:25. “I have no problem playing guys with two fouls. I’ve done it quite a bit, but I did want to see some of our other guys play a little bit. Maybe that hurt us a little bit, but I was OK with that, so that’s why I sat him with those two fouls.”
“Keep taking good ones. Stay aggressive. People are going to be a little more aware of him now because of the games he’s had, so he’s got to adjust to that. We’ve got to do some things to continue to work with him. He’s got to be patient. It’s hard when you’re as aggressive as he is. He’s got to be patient. I thought he took a couple ones that were, ‘I’m coming in, I want to make an impact’ and he’s got to be a little more patient but he’ll be fine. He’s such a weapon coming off the bench.” – Holtmann on freshman Duane Washington, who was 1 for 6 for four points.