Justin Ahrens had a monster game for the Ohio State men’s basketball team against Iowa on Tuesday. The freshman scored a career-high 29 points and deserves credit for helping the Buckeyes secure their first win against a ranked opponent, which likely assures their entry into the NCAA Tournament.
For one night, anyway, Ahrens was the accurate outside shooter Ohio State needs to keep defenses honest. But even as teammates mobbed Ahrens during a postgame TV interview, the player on whom OSU’s success ultimately rides was quietly celebrating a crucible game of his own.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
Six-foot-9 sophomore center Kaleb Wesson was just as responsible for the Buckeyes’ win as Ahrens was, and Wesson’s 18 points and 11 rebounds against the Hawkeyes had a deep effect on a young team that will succeed or stumble depending on how well its big man plays.
If Ahrens was the man of the present who looks to have a promising future, Wesson is the present who must deliver on more than promise.
Why was Iowa so important for Wesson’s progress? Because of what happened the last time Ohio State played the Hawkeyes, on Jan. 12, when Wesson scored just two points on 1-of-5 shooting in a 72-62 loss. The meager offensive output sent the Westerville South graduate into a tailspin that saw him score less than his average (16.2 points at the time) in eight of the next nine games.
Not only did Wesson’s scoring drop off, but three of his four disqualifications for accumulating five fouls occurred after Iowa. He was not scoring, but just as alarming he was not thinking. His emotion was outsizing his mental composure. Improvement came in fits and starts as Wesson struggled to play a complete game against any team not named Northwestern.
On Tuesday, finally, it arrived. Wesson was aggressive but smart, finishing with two fouls and remaining calm after getting called for a foul that upset coach Chris Holtmann more than his player.
“We know how important Kaleb is on the floor and we’ve been on him so much. He’s taken really good strides, not fouling and staying composed when he gets a bad call,” said Holtmann, who drew a technical for engaging the referee too vociferously. “He was much more composed than his coach.”
Ahrens’ outside shooting certainly opened the floor for Wesson to work down low, but credit the center for taking advantage of the situation.
“Was (Ahrens’) shooting impactful? Absolutely, but I would say Kaleb’s physicality in the second half was as great a reason as any for our win,” Holtmann said. “He opened so many things for so many people.”
Holtmann hit upon a truth that points to Wesson’s importance on a team that lacks consistent outside shooting.
“It’s not realistic to expect a freshman to go out and make 60 percent of his threes in every game, so let’s pump the brakes on that,” Holtmann said of Ahrens.
But it is realistic to expect Wesson to go for 15 points or more every game. And that’s what the Buckeyes need to succeed, not only the rest of this season but into next. As the offense continues to run through Wesson, he can’t score 18 points one game and five the next.
Some sobering statistics: Wesson’s 14.6 scoring average is the third-lowest for an Ohio State leading scorer since the 2003-04 season. The two below him — Jae’Sean Tate (14.3 in 2016-17) and Marc Loving (14.0 in 2015-16) — played on teams that missed the NCAA Tournament.
Thanks in part to Ahrens, the Buckeyes likely have secured their ticket to the NCAAs. But Wesson still is most responsible for the invite.