CHICAGO – There are plenty of numbers and performances that show why the No. 15 Ohio State men’s basketball team was able to beat UCLA by double figures Saturday at the United Center. Playing in the CBSSports Classic, the Buckeyes got a 22-point breakout from senior guard C.J. Jackson and a dream performance from graduate transfer guard Keyshawn Woods: 10 assists and zero turnovers.
But from my vantage point, the reason why the Buckeyes were able to move to 11-1 and handle the Bruins was the same reason why they eventually blew past Youngstown State last Tuesday. That would be Kaleb Wesson, who continues to make strides in an impressive sophomore season.
The Buckeyes pounded it inside to Wesson on the game’s first possession. He was matched up with the 7-foot-1 Moses Brown, a freshman who possesses the rare ability to look down on Wesson and who helps make UCLA tied for the country’s biggest team.
Video! The #Buckeyes take the court at the United Center. pic.twitter.com/ShRK3jH4Uf— Adam Jardy (@AdamJardy) December 22, 2018
After a 29-point disaster at Cincinnati on Wednesday night, the open question about the Bruins was whether they had the heart or the temerity to rise up and start to turn around a season that appears to be spiraling. This figured to be a game for pride. And from the opening seconds, the Buckeyes brought the 6-foot-9 Wesson to bear against UCLA’s biggest advantages against them: size and length.
Wesson didn’t score on that possession. He hit a three on the next one. And he finished with his third career double-double and second in three games, going for 15 points and 12 rebounds.
“We felt like he could take advantage of his size,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “He’s really good at sealing. He’s really good at catching, and when you’re evaluating big kids, those are two things that are important. He’s got terrific hands. His lift is improving, but we felt like he could get deep-post touches against them.”
He did. It forced UCLA into play a zone defense almost extensively, and even if it took the Buckeyes a while to make them pay, it was clear that Wesson was already impacting the game. And as it progressed, you could see it in the faces of the Bruins.
They didn’t want much to do with Wesson in the post. Brown, in particular, played only 6:37 in the second half while Wesson had five point and six rebounds.
“We did focus a lot on him,” UCLA sophomore guard Kris Wilkes said. “He went to work down there, but he didn’t get 30 tonight. I thought we did a decent job on him. I think we played hard and we dug (on defense) a little bit like we should have.”
Added coach Steve Alford, “Wesson is a load to play man-to-man for a long period of time because of the space he takes up.”
“(Their size), it made me work on my lower body more, trying to get in their legs and root out space for myself and my rebounds and fight for angles where my teammates could find me,” Wesson said.
This event hasn’t treated the Buckeyes too kindly over the years. Ohio State entered the UCLA game 1-3 overall, with the lone win coming three years ago when it upset No. 4 Kentucky, 74-67, inside the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn.
The prior three losses had been by an average of 13.0 points.
“We love this event,” Holtmann said. “We’ve struggled in this event. To be able to get a win is important. We love the event. It’s obviously three other basketball schools, three schools that have a tradition that’s really unparalleled. For us to align ourselves in this kind of an event, it’s great.”
The win also gave the Buckeyes three signature non-conference wins. Ohio State won at Cincinnati and at Creighton but lost at home to Syracuse.
“Dang Syracuse zone,” Holtmann said. “Couldn’t get that one at home. Last year we did not do a great job in non-conference games that are going to be evaluated at the end of the year by the NCAA Tournament selection committee. That was something we were trying to be a little more aware of. I doubt we’re going 15-3 in the Big Ten this year, so to have a non-conference where we could pick up some wins that are important was good, but more than anything we have to keep growing and getting better.
Jackson said the Buckeyes have, obviously, enjoyed the start to the year but that they aren’t satisfied.
“It’s always a good thing when you’re winning,” he said. “You can’t really complain too much, but I feel like we have a long way to go. December is not when you want to be at your best. It’s a long season. We have to finish this part right against High Point.”
Ohio State will play Kentucky in next year’s event, which will take place in Las Vegas.
Jackson hasn’t necessarily played poorly in recent games, but he hasn’t had a truly breakout performance since he put up a career-high 25 against Purdue Fort Wayne in the second game of the year. Since scoring 19 in the loss to Syracuse, Jackson had averaged 10.0 points but had 22 assists against eight turnovers.
Then he got rolling late against UCLA, helping keep the Bruins at arm’s length.
“The biggest thing was my teammates were looking out for me,” he said. “I started hitting a couple shots, got an easy floater in the beginning. When I was struggling in the first half, all the coaches and players stayed on me saying, ‘Keep shooting.’ That’s how they are in practice. When one’s struggling, they tell you to keep going because they’ve seen the success out of each player. It’s easy to play for guys like that.”
At the break, Jackson was 1 of 5 from the floor, 0 for 2 from three and had three turnovers with four assists. Wesson said the Buckeyes never wavered in their support for him.
“If he misses shots, we’re on him because we want him to keep shooting,” he said. “If he misses three in a row, we want him to shoot the fourth one. He’s a great shooter and we like to find him when he’s open.”
That came in concert with Woods’ performance.
“I was really proud of (C.J.) because I thought he was struggling a little bit early and I thought he had a stretch there that broke the game open in the second half where we moved him off the ball,” Holtmann said. “I thought Keyshawn having 10 assists and zero turnovers might have been as instrumental as anything because he can see things in the zone. That’s why I couldn’t take him out, because he’s really good at attacking zones, driving gaps and finding the right guy. Moving C.J. off the ball helped us.”
Holtmann was asked what it will take to win the Big Ten this season.
“It’s fantastic,” he said. “I’ve not watched all the teams, but I’ve never been a part of a league that is this deep and good from top to bottom. I’ve been part of some great leagues, but never one quite like this. I’d hate to speculate. I think Michigan State was 16-2 last year. If someone goes through this league this year 16-2, they can certainly cut down the nets.”
“He wants to do well, and he intends to do well. He didn’t always make great decisions. He drove it in there too deep, but I liked how aggressive he was late. We just tried to stay positive with him as much as possible. With him, when you know you have a guy that all he cares about is his team winning, I think you can give him a little bit of latitude to make some mistakes.” – Holtmann, on Jackson