It’s a challenge to look at Saturday’s Ohio State win against Rutgers as much more than a celebration for sophomore center Kaleb Wesson. The big man certainly deserves the credit for powering a 76-62 win against the Scarlet Knights, a game in which he scored the team’s first 12 points, either scored or assisted on the first 29 and avoided foul trouble for his most impactful game in weeks.
Along the way, though, he got some significant contributions from multiple players that give a better insight into what this team can look like when operating at or close to its intended design.
The other obvious name is C.J. Jackson. After Wesson put up 21 first-half points, Jackson carried much of the second-half load, scoring 17 points after halftime. Together, the duo gave the Buckeyes a pair of 20-point scorers for the second time this season (Purdue Fort Wayne, when Jackson had 25 and freshman Duane Washington Jr. had 20).Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
It didn’t stop there, though. In his most impactful game since a win against UCLA right before Christmas, graduate transfer guard Keyshawn Woods started doing many of the things the Buckeyes brought him in to do this season. In 29:36, Woods was an efficient 4 of 7 from the floor, giving him the most field goals he’s made in a game since he had five against Bucknell on Dec. 15.
Woods also had four rebounds and three assists. He did not have a turnover. He took a charge. He caused at least two tie-ups and was credited with one steal. He wasn’t the primary or even the secondary offensive option, but he was impactful throughout the game in a way this team will need him to be if it wants to mount a February charge against a schedule littered with teams at the bottom of the Big Ten standings.
In a game that saw the Buckeyes make 13 threes, only commit six turnovers and lead for the final 33:38 while not carrying over any negative emotion from a contentious loss at Michigan four days earlier, this bore some resemblance to what coach Chris Holtmann wants this team to look like.
“Defensively we need to be better in some areas,” he said. “I did not think we were as alert or as active defensively as we need to be and that’s a concern for me. Obviously our shot-making can cover up some things. We made 13 threes. I think our guys took great shots and our guys screened well. The quality of shot was a high-level quality shot, but there’s definitely some areas you pull out of this and say we need to be better moving forward.”
When asked if Jackson proved to be the difference in the game, Holtmann said, “I would put Key along with that. Andre (Wesson) was good today, he just got into foul trouble. We need consistency out of a number of guys. I don’t think this team, you can pin it on just one guy. Certainly Kaleb led the way offensively today but I wouldn’t want to pin any of our losses on any one particular guy. It has to be a collective thing.”
One day before the game, Woods promised a more physical effort than what the Buckeyes produced in a 64-61 loss at the Rutgers Athletic Center on January 9. After Rutgers had gotten out to an 8-4 lead, the Buckeyes were on an 8-0 run when Woods tied up Shaq Carter, who stands six inches taller and has a 40-pound advantage on the guard.
It resulted in a jump ball, awarding the Buckeyes possession. Luther Muhammad then buried a three-pointer in the right corner, forcing a Rutgers timeout. It would never again be closer than a four-point game.
“First half to second half, I felt like we played solid today,” Wesson said. “We definitely had timely mishaps and things we can correct, but today was a pretty good day.”
Carrying the load
Of course, the headlines go to Wesson, who after a taxing and emotionally challenging January was cool, calm and locked in from the opening tip until he held the ball while the final seconds ticked off the clock.
There’s plenty to be written about the sophomore in the coming days, and Sunday’s Dispatch will have a sidebar on the sophomore. But interestingly, Holtmann said he thought Wesson’s best play was one on which he didn’t score.
“I thought he did a really good job in the second half of not settling for some threes when he could’ve settled,” Holtmann said. “He had one in the corner that he drove it and passed it to Keyshawn. I thought that was as good a play as any he made, as crazy as that sounds.”
Friday, Woods said he felt a second-half fracas at Michigan actually helped bring the Buckeyes closer together. Both he and Wesson were whistled for technical fouls, as were two Michigan players.
In his first interview since that game, Wesson said “it wasn’t really hard” to show restraint even when a Michigan player laid his hands on the sophomore.
“I had to recognize the situation,” he said. “It was time, we could still win the game. For me to do something extra or cost my team for me to have to sit down the whole game, that would’ve hurt us even worse.”
There was none of that Saturday against a Rutgers team that coach Steve Pikiell said doesn’t believe in double-teaming opponents.
“It makes our job a lot easier because they have to guard one of the toughest players in the Big Ten in the post,” Jackson said of Wesson’s game. “When you have to do that, that gets guys like Luther open shots and he was knocking his shots down today. When he’s going like that, you just want him to keep going and don’t stop until the end of the game. It’s fun to watch your teammate have one of those nights.”
Pikiell in particular noted Wesson’s 3-of-4 effort from three-point range.
“When he’s making threes like that, he’s a problem,” he said. “You can only take away so many things. I thought he was just outstanding today and got them off to a great start and kind of carried them.”
The Buckeyes committed 19 turnovers in the 16-point loss at Michigan. They also committed 19 in a 12-point home loss to Purdue on Jan. 23. Then there was a season-high 21 in a 10-point road loss at Iowa on Jan. 12.
It’s been an issue for this team all season. Against Rutgers, though, Ohio State committed only six, none of which came during the first half.
“We’ve been preaching, in practice, turnovers,” Jackson said. “The last couple games we’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot. I think last game we had 19, so when you play against teams in the Big Ten that are physical defensively and hard to score on and then you turn the ball over, you’ll be in for long nights. In practice we practice every day, work on our turnovers. We have to do a little extra conditioning for turning the ball over, so I think that helped translate for today.”
Half of the turnovers came from Muhammad. As a team, Rutgers forces 12.8 turnovers per game. In their loss there in early January, the Buckeyes had 13.
“It’s a by-product of hopefully our guys are taking that a little more serious,” Holtmann said on the reduction in this game. “Having said that, playing at home versus playing on the road. You’re playing a team that turns the opposition over versus a team that doesn’t turn the opposition over at a super high rate. Their defense is built a little differently. Some defenses like Michigan State’s or Rutgers’ is built to contain, and they’ll turn you over some, but that’s not what they do. Other defenses in how they play turn you over a lot. That’s some of it as well.
“I don’t think we can sit back and say we’ve corrected our turnover issue. We haven’t. We did some good things today, but we’ve still got to do a better job.”
Before he got into the win, Holtmann opened his press conference by congratulating former Ohio State star D’Angelo Russell for his first selection to the NBA All-Star team.
“I just want to congratulate D’Angelo Russell,” he said. “What a great honor. We were just talking in the coaches’ locker room about how it wasn’t too long ago when D’Angelo was here playing for coach Matta. To now, to be an all-star, is such a special and cool thing for him. I know Buckeye nation is proud of him, and when you think about how hard that is, we should really be proud of him because that’s a really special thing. Congratulations to D’Angelo.”
Russell was also honored on the scoreboard during a timeout.
At halftime, Ohio State honored a number of former team captains who all returned for the game. They were:
Tom Williams (1953), Gene Millard (’57), Jim Laughlin (’58), Dick Furry (’60), Doug McDonald (’63), Bill Hosket (’68), Denny Meadors (’69), Craig Taylor (’76), Kelvin Ransey (’79), Rick Smith (’79), Granville Waiters (’83), Ron Stokes (’84-85), Troy Taylor (’85), Joe Concheck (’85), Tony White (’89), Alex Davis (’93), Jamie Skelton (’93), Rickey Dudley (’94), Doug Etzler (’95), Otis Winston (’97), Neshaun Coleman (’98-99), Jason Singleton (’99), Scoonie Penn (’99-00), Michael Redd (2000), Ken Johnson (’01), Brian Brown (’01-02), Velimir Radinovic (’04), Terence Dials (’05-06), James “J.J.” Sullinger (’06) and Jamar Butler (’08).
Also in attendance: 2019 Ohio State signee Alonzo Gaffney, who is playing his senior season at Wolfeboro (N.H.) Brewster Academy.
“I’m just trying to evaluate. Respectfully, I know guys look ahead and say these are winnable. Coaches don’t look at it like that. Coaches, they know every one is going to be extremely challenging and difficult. Obviously our next game is against a team that was 3-0 against us last year. I think for us, it’s can we just keep getting better, can we make adjustments that we need to. Can we get more contributions from more guys? Can our turnover rate improve? Those are the things we’re really focusing on.” – Holtmann, when asked if this was the start of a winnable stretch of games for the Buckeyes