Chicago – The storylines coming out of Wednesday night’s Ohio State win against Illinois inside the United Center are as numerous as the number of second-half fouls called.
Well, maybe not quite. But this win for the Buckeyes, a 77-67 affair that looked dicey at moments (particularly in the first half), showed us a couple of things about this team. First, it showed that Luther Muhammad’s defensive intensity also translates to his desire to get back on the court after an injury. It showed that if Keyshawn Woods is being aggressive and looking for his shot, Ohio State is a significantly more dangerous team. It showed that the Buckeyes can take a punch in the mouth, dust themselves off and persevere on the road.
It also showed that Ohio State will go into the full slate of Big Ten games as one of five teams with a 2-0 record.
“We’ve got a lot to improve on,” coach Chris Holtmann said, “but I’m not giving a road Big Ten win back.”Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
When Muhammad slammed onto the floor at Value City Arena with 1:02 to play against Syracuse exactly one week ago and had to have his shoulder popped back into place, it stood to reason that he might be out for a while. With a 10-day stretch between the Illinois game and the next Ohio State game, an extended break would only do some good for the freshman.
But that’s not really how Muhammad is wired. And after putting in effort with his rehab, he was cleared to participate in the game after Wednesday’s shoot-around.
“I feel 100 percent,” he said after the game. “Doing everything trainers asked me to do, rehabbing and just keep icing. My rehab was like an hour long. A bunch of shoulder exercises. Weights. I felt good at shoot-around and I got cleared to play.”
Holtmann said things took on a decidedly rosier turn Tuesday, when Muhammad was full-go for what was a physical practice in preparation for Illinois’ style of play. It was still with some concern, though, that Holtmann put him back into the lineup. He started and played a season-high 34:57, scoring six points.
“It’s totally his style (of game),” Holtmann said. “Now, I worried about it with his shoulder. I really did. I worried about, is this the right game to bring him back for, given how much contact is going to be involved in this game? But he wants to play and when the doctors say he’s cleared, you can’t sit him. I was concerned.”
Muhammad wore a black brace on the left shoulder.
“I wasn’t looking forward to anything, but if I had to pick a game to come back to, I would love it to be this one,” he said. “This is a tough, competitive game and it was very physical. In order to make sure I’m 100 percent, I felt like this game was the game.”
Owing to the uncertainty over whether he would play or not, Muhammad’s No. 1 jersey did not get packed. When he was cleared, he had to wear a No. 12 jersey with no name on the back. That number happened to belong to Scoonie Penn, now a member of the coaching staff and a player to whom Muhammad has frequently been compared.
He did check with Penn about wearing his old number.
“Scoonie said yeah,” Muhammad said. “He passed it down. He said I’m going to have a good game.”
Going forward, Holtmann said Muhammad is fully available – provided there aren’t multiple reoccurrences.
“He’s cleared,” the coach said. “If it pops again; they’re not going to let it pop out multiple times. That’s the concern, because that’s a season-ender if it pops multiple times. Our medical people aren’t going to let that happen.”
Woods took charge on the night, putting up 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting, but Wesson really helped settle things to open the second half. After a brutal close to the first half that saw Illinois take a four-point lead into the locker room, Wesson came back into the lineup after being sidelined with two fouls and immediately made an impact. He drew two fouls on the first possession of the half and scored the first four points for the Buckeyes, helping settle things as the offense started to protect the ball better.
“We always feel his presence,” Woods said of Wesson. “Whenever he comes in, we try to look for him at all times. We knew he was in foul trouble. I think that’s what’s unique about our team: even when Kaleb’s out, we can still find a way to keep rolling but once he comes back in we’ve got to make sure we keep feeding him the ball and make sure everybody sees his presence felt.”
He wasn’t the only one in that predicament at the break: Andre Wesson, Kyle Young and Woods all had two fouls during the first half.
“We were in foul trouble, significant foul trouble not just with him but with a number of guys,” Holtmann said. “It did change the game for us a little bit.”
The loss of Andre Wesson in particular was impactful. He played only 21:56 and, along with Young and Muhammad, finished with four fouls.
Kaleb Wesson finished with 13 points and seven rebounds in 21:17. Eight of his points came in the second half.
“We tried to play through Kaleb,” Holtmann said. “It’s hard to get Kaleb the ball sometimes in this game. We were able to do that a little bit more in the second half.”
Senior guard C.J. Jackson played a season-low 19:33 against the Illini, finishing with eight points, five assists and four turnovers. He checked out of the game with 14:27 to play after turning the ball over on a travel and did not return. Ohio State trailed 49-38 at that point.
The Buckeyes then put together a run to take control, and Holtmann said that was why Jackson didn’t re-enter.
“I wasn’t sending a message to C.J., it was just a situation where I felt like we were playing better with this group,” he said. “This group was making better decisions at the time, so we just rolled with it. It had nothing at all to do with me trying to send him a message. I told him on the bench, I think this group is playing really well. Keyshawn is making good plays with the ball in his hands, Luther is defending (Trent) Frazier well, we’re going to roll with it for a little bit.”
The same might not be true for freshman Duane Washington Jr., who after a solid start that included taking a charge found himself pulled late in the first half for former walk-on Joey Lane. Washington was removed from the game after a behind-the-back pass found its way into the media seating.
Was Holtmann sending a message to Washington?
“You could say that was a poor pass and a poor decision, so someone needed to come in for him,” he said.
Washington would return, and he finished with nine points and three rebounds in 14:07.
Last year, Ohio State benefited from not having to play at Minnesota when the game was hosted at Madison Square Garden as part of the Big Ten’s hockey/men’s basketball doubleheader. It turned a road game into a neutral-court game, one the Buckeyes won handily.
This wasn’t exactly the same, but it was similar. Playing roughly 140 miles north of Illinois’ campus, Ohio State played what amounted to a quasi-road game in front of only 5,285 fans squeezed into four sections almost exclusively on two sides of the court.
Did it occasionally get a little bit loud? Sure, but nothing like playing inside the State Farm Center would have been.
“I don’t know,” Holtmann said when asked if there was an advantage for his team playing this game here and not there. “This did get loud. It got very loud, but I’m sure in Champaign it gets louder. I don’t know if there was an advantage one way or the other, but we certainly heard their fans. They’ve got tremendously passionate basketball fans here.”
Woods and Muhammad said they were excited to play on the court where Michael Jordan starred.
“It’s an honor, playing in an NBA arena, especially one that Mike played in,” Woods said.
“I’ve never played in an NBA arena,” Muhammad added. “This was my first time. It was great.”
Along with Indiana’s Archie Miller, Illinois coach Brad Underwood and Holtmann make up the Big Ten’s 2017 coaching recruiting class.
Tonight’s game obviously pitted two members of that class together. With the result, Holtmann is now 33-10 (.767) at Ohio State while Underwood is 16-25 (.390) at Illinois.
Holtmann was asked why he’s had such success with the Buckeyes compared to Illinois’ struggles.
“For us, I can just speak on us because I think our older guys and our new guys have really embraced how we want to play and the way in which we want to go about it,” he said. “We had two tremendous senior leaders last year in Keita Bates-Diop, really three in Keita Bates-Diop, Jae’Sean Tate and Andrew Dakich. Kam Williams, we leaned on those guys last year. This group, we’ve got good leadership but we’ve got great buy-in across the board.
“Then we’ve been able to get some good players that have just grown and developed. But I’ve got tremendous respect for Brad and his teams. It’s going to be an incredible program to compete against now and in the future. Look at the young guys on their roster as well as some of their older guys: it’s impressive.”
Underwood was likewise complimentary of the Buckeyes.
“Ohio State’s one of the elite opponents in our league,” he said. “That’s easy to buy in, when you’re winning and having success. He’s done a great job nurturing some of those young guys along, and he’s got a veteran group. I feel great about our team. I go to practice every day with a smile on my face because I love this group.”
“I think you take the positives from our competitive approach in the second half. I’ve got to take responsibility because we didn’t play as smart as we needed to in the first half. Coaching plays a factor in that, and that’s disappointing, but we played smarter and we played with more competitive stuff in the second half. I’m really proud of that. There’s some technical things to improve on. This isn’t a game where, fans may look at it and say, ‘They’re not running (things)’ – you can’t run anything against these guys. You can’t run offense. It’s a players’ game. I’m happy with this win. I thought we would have to be pretty gritty to get this game and not always perfect, and we certainly weren’t perfect.” – Holtmann, on being 2-0 in Big Ten play