There was as much intrigue about how this Ohio State team would play against Minnesota as arguably any game so far this season.
Nobody expected the Buckeyes to go undefeated, but the thoroughness of last Wednesday’s home loss to Syracuse had the potential to serve as a blunt blast of reality. Couple that with the loss of Luther Muhammad to injury and the chance to learn something significant about this team increased exponentially against a Minnesota team that brought athleticism and length to the court.
Sunday night in the Big Ten opener, the Buckeyes just brought more physicality, aggressiveness and tenacity. That led to more points – way more points – and a second consecutive 1-0 start to conference play for coach Chris Holtmann.
The contributions in this one were spread across the roster. Six Ohio State players scored in double figures: Andre Wesson with 16, Kaleb Wesson with 15, C.J. Jackson and Musa Jallow with 11 each and Kyle Young and Duane Washington Jr. with 10 apiece.
Muhammad is obviously missed, and his impact will be felt the longer he’s not on the court. Tonight, though, the kids were all right for a big reason.
“Credit to Ohio State,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “They were the way more physical team and I’m not complaining about refs. They were the most physical team, imposing their will on us. Absolutely obliterating us on the backboard at the beginning of the game. It set the tone for us.”
There was a five-point possession that saw the Buckeyes grab five offensive rebounds and draw three fouls. There was a 42-33 rebounding advantage against a Minnesota team that had been outrebounding its opponents by an average of six per game.
Oh, and there was the first fruitless three-point shooting game for an Ohio State conference opponent since Michigan went 0 for 10 from deep on March 3, 1992. No Big Ten team had ever come to Value City Arena and not hit at least one three-pointer until tonight.
Tired legs certainly had something to do with that. For some reason, the Gophers played Friday night in Minnesota and didn’t have even 48 hours in between opening tips. Holtmann noted the difference while Pitino said he didn’t want to use it as an excuse.
“I thought our guys were doing what we’ve tried to preach to them and we have guys that can keep balls alive,” Holtmann said of the five-point possession. “This is a really good Minnesota rebounding team. It was good to see. Guys kept balls alive. We had a couple tip-outs that were really important tonight. It set the tone with our aggressive, but it cost us a little bit there in the first half, too.”
That would come at the end, when Minnesota mounted its only resistance and put together a 9-0 run late to pull within 36-28 before Andre Wesson snuffed it out with a three-point play with 27 seconds remaining.
Kaleb Wesson opened the second half making up for lost time due to foul trouble, scoring Ohio State’s first seven points and nine of its first 11 to remove any doubt about the final score.
The Buckeyes have now won 10 straight home games against Minnesota but more importantly are off to a fruitful start in conference play.
“It’s very important,” Holtmann said. “It’s also very important to get the ones you can get at home. I always feel like in league play you have to get the ones you can get, because there’s always going to be some that it’s hard to get that one. It’s not going to be your night, you’re playing a team on a night where they’re exceptional, they’re playing their best. That happens in league play.”
The importance of winning this first game was something Holtmann said he stressed to the Buckeyes.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I had the older guys talk to the younger guys about the difference between league play and non-league play. We had the older guys and quizzed them on what’s the difference. I wanted our younger guys to hear that from our older guys, and they hammered it.”
Muhammad still made his presence felt even if he couldn’t be on the court. From his spot on the bench, Muhammad spent most of the game talking, standing and encouraging his teammates.
“There’s no holding him back,” Jallow said. “He’s probably talking even more now that he’s out, and I didn’t think that was possible.”
Holtmann said he didn’t notice, but that that’s not unusual for him. He had to be told that Muhammad frequently looked like a coach.
“He’s a beautiful kid, man,” he said. “I didn’t see it. Coaches, we’re all oblivious to everything. I actually walked upstairs through the practice arena and there’s a big shoe display. I guess it’s been up for three months. I pointed to an assistant and said, ‘did they just put that up?’ and he looked at me like I was an absolute idiot. I didn’t notice it, but that’s Luther. He’s a beautiful kid.”
As for the injury itself, Holtmann said there’s no new news to report.
“Just progressing,” he said. “Continues to do rehab. I don’t have any indication for what Wednesday night’s going to be. They’re super physical and playing them there is going to be a great challenge. Right now I couldn’t say one way or the other.”
After Andre Wesson’s three-point play gave the Buckeyes a 39-28 lead with 27.7 seconds left in the first half, timeout was called and Holtmann made a surprise substitution.
With Jackson and Washington both playing with two fouls, Holtmann was concerned about either picking up a late foul. So he put former walk-on Joey Lane into the game, marking the first first-half appearance of his career. With him playing the head of what looked to be a zone, the Buckeyes forced a missed three-pointer from Dupree McBrayer and Lane came up with the rebound.
I asked if it was something Lane had earned in practice or a result of Muhammad being out.
“A little of both,” he said. “We talked about as a staff potentially playing him in the first half for a minute or two. He’s been good in practice. Dude just cares about Ohio State winning. Something to be said for that.”
The immediate follow-up was if Lane brought something specific to that situation that lent itself to putting him on the court.
“No,” Holtmann said.
As reporters chuckled with the directness of his answer, Holtmann said, “I don’t know how else to say that. We were in foul trouble. He was ready, but it was not a defensive substitution necessitated because of his defensive ability. More foul trouble.”
Andre Wesson and Jallow both had impactful minutes and significant contributions in this game. Rather than jam them into this notebook, check the blog in the next day or two for more on those guys.
Holtmann’s press conference seemed to be complete when a team spokesman in the back asked if the coach had anything else he’d like to add.
It was clear Holtmann had something he wanted to get off his chest.
“I do have one last thing,” he said. “There’s a few things I don’t understand in life.”
At this point, I started bracing for what could possibly be coming.
“I don’t understand why airlines overbook their flights when they know how many seats they have. I don’t understand how Rocky III never got an Academy Award.”
Then he paused for dramatic effect before delivering the payoff.
“I can’t for the life of me understand how we are No. 6 in the final college football playoff ranking,” he said. “I don’t get it. I’m out.”
And with that, he was up and gone.
“It feels good that you have a whole program and fans that are dedicated to the team. Whenever they’re supporting you and you’re doing well, it feels great.” – Jallow, on hearing fans chant “Moose!” as he put together his first-half run.