As Ohio State practically broke in half over 35 minutes of excruciating play, sending fans escaping up the aisles like Jack and Rose climbing to the back rail of the Titanic, I wondered what Kaleb Wesson was thinking on the bench.
As the Buckeyes erased a 23-point deficit in the second half to send the regular-season finale against Wisconsin to overtime Sunday afternoon, I wondered what Wesson was thinking.
As the crowd in often subdued Value City Arena roared to life during the comeback … as OSU ended up losing 73-67, further damaging its NCAA Tournament chances … as tears flowed on Senior Day … as coach Chris Holtmann hailed the heart and character of seniors C.J. Jackson and Joey Lane and graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods … I wondered what Wesson was thinking.
I also wondered a more troublesome thought: Was Wesson thinking? Was he allowing himself to feel the sting of painful what-ifs? The pinch of disappointing his teammates?
Heaven help this team if its leading scorer, rebounder and defensive force was giving no consideration to the consequences of his actions. How the Buckeyes probably would have won at Northwestern on Wednesday — and had an easier time against Wisconsin — if Wesson had not missed both games. The 6-foot-9 sophomore center was suspended indefinitely on March 1 for violating athletic department policy, a punishment that so far has cost him three games, including at Purdue on March 2.
Ohio State likely would not have defeated the Boilermakers, who made shots, as we used to say on the blacktop, out of their rears. Then again, if Wesson patrols the middle, maybe Purdue’s shooters don’t play with as much confidence.
Maybe Northwestern looks more like Northwestern. Maybe Wisconsin never builds that 23-point lead and the Buckeyes don’t open the game against the Badgers by missing their first 11 shots — four days after missing their first 13 against the Wildcats. The point is, OSU often looked lost without Wesson.
What was he thinking by jeopardizing the Buckeyes’ NCAA hopes? I will not speculate on his decision-making, other than to say he needs to recalibrate. Having already been suspended one game last season for showing up late to meetings and benched with three other starters for being late to pre-game in November, the Westerville South graduate has put Holtmann and the program in a precarious position. Can Ohio State trust Wesson to be the foundation of the roster if he continues to slip up?
Some practical application: Wisconsin coach Greg Gard explained the difficulty of adjusting to losing a key player during the season.
“It’s a guy removed from your rotation,” Gard said. “It’s the points and rebounds … but it’s also the feel of the game. There is a mental adjustment, and it does take a toll.”
As Sunday’s game began … as the Buckeyes were getting blown out … as they nearly pulled off a “Do you believe in miracles?” moment ... What was Wesson thinking?
Was it: “I would have made a difference.” Could it have been: “I will not put my teammates in this challenging situation again.”
We should find out soon. Holtmann expects to release an update on the player’s status by Tuesday or Wednesday. When made available, Wesson will get a chance to explain what he was thinking.
Until then, we can only wonder. I choose to think Wesson is hurting, that he knows what his actions hath wrought. If so, he need not destroy himself emotionally. Learn and grow. But he also need not excuse himself entirely. Let the sadness soak for a while.