The middle of the season is not typically the time for tinkering. Given his druthers, Ohio State men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann would prefer to be making only minor tweaks to fortify areas of concern with his team deep into conference play.
That’s not the situation for this Buckeyes team, and it forced Holtmann a little bit out of his comfort zone while trying to shake his players free of a five-game losing streak. Saturday morning at Nebraska, some of the work paid off when a 2-3 zone and some full-court pressure helped keep the Cornhuskers off balance in a 10-point Ohio State win.
A significant lineup shift using more big men had to be scrapped when Kyle Young went down with a stress fracture leading into Wednesday’s game against Purdue, and multiple role players have seen more significant playing time in recent games.
In short: By any measure, this isn’t the same Ohio State team that got off to a 12-1 start.
“In a perfect world, would I want to be changing these things this much at this point in the season? No,” Holtmann said Monday. “I’d want to be really tweaking some things and figuring out how to get better in some of those areas that we need to get better in. … We’re adjusting to both some injuries and the situations ahead of us.”
A byproduct of the Young injury has been a smaller lineup that allowed the Buckeyes to compete against the Boilermakers and withstand a rough first half from center Kaleb Wesson at Nebraska. That’s helped give a young team some confidence. Also against the Cornhuskers, the defensive changes helped create an additional spark in Ohio State’s first win in nearly a month.
The zone and the press were things the Buckeyes had practiced, even if the overall preference is to stick with man-to-man defense. It’s also something that Michigan, Tuesday's opponent, now has to at least spend some time preparing for.
“Against Nebraska, we executed,” graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods said. “We prefer to guard our man, be in gaps and play man. But if we have to throw a wrinkle, now teams have to scout and be prepared for teams to go zone now because we executed so well against Nebraska.”
Another result has been more minutes for more players. Since the start of the Iowa game, sophomore Musa Jallow and freshmen Justin Ahrens and Jaedon LeDee have seen their minutes increase significantly. Jallow has averaged 19.5 minutes during the past four games after playing 11.7 per game to that point, while Ahrens and LeDee have increased from 4.9 to 10 and 6.2 to 9.5, respectively.
Holtmann said the decision to play some zone came about as a “byproduct of some issues we’ve had with depth” and didn’t want to get into details on the topic. It’s not been a secret during the first half of the season that the Buckeyes have occasionally struggled with their perimeter defense, something a zone could help alleviate.
“You’re just searching,” Holtmann said. “I don’t think you’re just throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks, because I don’t think that’s a healthy place to put your team in.
“I’m sure there are thousands of Monday morning quarterbacks that probably have their ideas, but we’ve tried to have just a specific idea.”