Although the numbers for web traffic tell otherwise, there’s a sentiment among many Ohio State fans that men’s basketball season doesn’t begin until football season comes to a close.
If you’re one of the Buckeyes fans who subscribes to that theory, this post is for you. Football season ended with Tuesday’s win against Washington in the Rose Bowl, and Big Ten season kicks off in earnest Saturday when No. 14 Ohio State hosts No. 8 Michigan State at Value City Arena.
If you’ve been following along all along, hopefully you still find this entertaining. Here are five things you should know about the 2018-19 Buckeyes if you’re just now planning to tune in.
1. Kaleb Wesson has become a go-to player.
If you watched Ohio State last season, you probably loved Jae’Sean Tate for his hustle and heart. You probably also realized that when the Buckeyes needed a basket or looked to a go-to player to make things happen, they turned to Big Ten player of the year Keita Bates-Diop, who played his way into the NBA in a breakout season.
That means he’s not on this year’s roster, which means the role of go-to guy was firmly undecided as the Buckeyes opened the season. Bates-Diop scored 25.9 percent of Ohio State’s points last year.
In the last 10 games, Wesson has scored 182 points. He’s accounted for 23.5 percent of his team’s points. He’s doing it on the block, where he’s wearing teams down. He’s stepped outside and added a three-point shot to his game, one that has helped stretch opposing defenses.
Wesson is still not an explosive player, and he occasionally turns the ball over a few times too many for coach Chris Holtmann’s liking while constantly dealing with double teams. His conditioning will go a long way toward how effective he can be for the grind of a Big Ten season as he faces players more physically comparable.
But he looks to be growing into an all-conference player, and another chapter of the journey will be written when Gahanna product Nick Ward comes to town Saturday.
2. The sum of the parts is greater than the individuals.
Given what Ohio State lost from last year’s team, it was going to take incremental increases essentially across the board for the Buckeyes to have any real sort of success this year.
That’s exactly what has happened. All five returning recruited scholarship players have upped their scoring production, but none more than sophomore forward Kyle Young. After averaging only 1.8 points while seeing limited action last year, Young is sixth on the team with an average of 7.5 points per game and has done so with some powerful and/or gravity-defying dunks along the way.
Likewise, junior forward Andre Wesson has blossomed into a key player at both ends of the court while growing into more of a scorer. He’s upped his average from 2.9 points per game a year ago to 7.4 this season, and he nearly had a triple-double in last Saturday’s win against High Point when he had 10 points and nine assists.
In all, five players are averaging between 7.4 and 9.3 points per game.
3. C.J. Jackson has been getting some needed help.
The senior guard is the most-experienced player on the roster, and as such much has been expected from the point guard this season.
It’s been somewhat of a mixed bag. Although Jackson is coming off the first back-to-back 20-point scoring performances of his career, turnovers have occasionally been an issue that has relegated him to the bench. Holtmann is notoriously demanding of his point guards, which has explained Jackson’s occasional short leash, and his assist-to-turnover ratio has dropped from 1.79 to 1.61 so far this season.
When he’s hot, Jackson is as capable as anybody on the roster as getting into a rhythm and sparking an offense. He has increased his scoring average from 12.6 to 13.6 points, but there is a consistency level that still seems a work in progress.
He has played more off the ball of late when Keyshawn Woods has been on the court at the same time, which has helped.
4. The kids are alright.
Two of Ohio State’s four freshmen are contributing at a high level, and the other two have by all accounts handled their adjustments to limited playing time with maturity.
Luther Muhammad has started all but two games, one of which was while dealing with a shoulder injury, and shown all the makings of a future Big Ten defensive player of the year. He’s tough-nosed, competitive and in general a real bear on opposing guards. He’s also consistently won sprints during practice since the first day he arrived on campus.
Fellow backcourt player Duane Washington Jr. has shown he’s comfortable shooting any shot at just about any time in any situation. He’s provided a spark off the bench, scoring a career-high 20 points in the home opener against Purdue Fort Wayne as he was 6 of 9 from three. Against High Point, he added three assists and did not commit a turnover.
Jaedon LeDee’s minutes have waned as Kaleb Wesson has asserted himself, but he’s proven to be an effective rebounder and free-throw shooter. Wing Justin Ahrens is at the end of the bench but has publicly stressed that he accepts his role and is willing to help however he can as he acclimates himself to this level of basketball.
After losing a player to transfer in between the exhibition game and season opener, the Buckeyes have shown they remain a tight-knit bunch – or at least while they’re winning. Look for that to be tested anew in the coming weeks.
5. Holtmann keeps cruising.
Just like in year one at Ohio State, Holtmann has the Buckeyes on pace to outperform expectations. Picked to finish eighth in the official media poll conducted jointly by the Dispatch and the Athletic, Ohio State again won its first two conference games and handled non-conference play in such fashion to climb as high as No. 13 in the Associated Press poll.
Twenty games into his Big Ten career, Holtmann’s 17-3 start is the best in Ohio State history. Next year, the Buckeyes are slated to return all but two players and will add a top-10 recruiting class of three players that signed in November.
Everything will get more difficult in these next 18 games. The season to this point has been overachievement after overachievement, and the Buckeyes have occasionally shown the ability to go comatose offensively and an inability to close halves with any sense of authority. There are some troubling trends embedded deeper in the statistics behind the glossy ranking and record.
But nobody expected this team to be 12-1 at the start of the year. The Buckeyes are firmly projected at this moment to reach the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season, and it will take a meltdown to prevent that from happening.