C.J. Jackson has become a spokesman for this season’s Ohio State team, but it doesn’t mean the senior says a lot. Now in his third season with the Buckeyes, the laid-back Jackson is polite but not prone to bouts of verbosity.
So when he was asked what getting the Buckeyes into the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year under coach Chris Holtmann said about the state of the program, his response said volumes.
“I think that just shows that Ohio State is back and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down anytime soon, the fact that how Coach Holt runs things and how he’s changed the culture so fast,” he said Sunday night.Get the BuckeyeXtra newsletter
Sign up for the latest Ohio State sports news with the weekly BuckeyeXtra newsletter
It’s a bold statement given the nature of Ohio State’s place in the tournament — a No. 11 seed, widely expected to not advance out of the first weekend — but Jackson has a point based on what he has personally witnessed. Two years ago, as Jackson gradually outplayed and overtook JaQuan Lyle at point guard, the Buckeyes failed to secure even an NIT bid.
It marked the first season since 2003-04 that an eligible Ohio State team didn’t participate in the postseason, and it ultimately led to Holtmann replacing Thad Matta. It’s a distant memory now, even after the Buckeyes turned in what could generously be described as an uneven season.
And yet, the start to the season could have hardly gone better. A win at Cincinnati that stood up as their best-rated win came in the opener and was put together by a roster that did not have the luxury of time to figure out what it had, especially with a game at Creighton a week later.
“We had to have a much different identity than last year’s team, and we had to find that identity pretty quickly because of who we opened up with,” Holtmann said. “It wasn’t like, 'OK, you’re going to play your way into figuring out who you are.' We had to be pretty good on opening night, or else you’re missing out on an opportunity that could prove valuable, and it obviously proved very valuable.
“We’ve never coached a team where it’s been this number of new faces and you’re trying to figure out with each passing day who we are and who we’re becoming.”
That was challenged on multiple occasions. A five-game losing streak to open January sent Holtmann back to the offensive drawing board as teams neutralized Kaleb Wesson in the lane and dared someone to make them pay for it. The changes were subtle but designed to simplify things and try to regenerate some confidence.
But then, with three games to play, came a suspension to Wesson for an unspecified violation of athletic department policy that again threw a wrench into everything. During the offseason, he was the one player the Ohio State coaches thought opponents would have to account for.
>>Download the NCAA tournament bracket
“Every year you’re looking at your team and saying, ‘OK, who on our roster right now can win a one-on-one matchup, can potentially create a double team, can force the other team to game plan to stop him?’ ” Holtmann said. “I think the good teams will have three of those guys. The elite teams might have four.
“In the offseason, you’re building your offense around that. When we looked at our team, in terms of our current roster setup, it was pretty clear what that was going to be for us.”
Some players grew into more prominent roles and helped shoulder some of the load. Junior Andre Wesson increased his scoring average from 2.9 points a year ago to 8.8, and sophomore Kyle Young saw his climb from 1.8 to 6.4 despite dealing with leg and ankle injuries. And along the way, multiple players pitched in to fill the leadership void.
“I thought if we had some of that (leadership) we would have a chance, but no, I did not look at the (preseason) projections and (object),” Holtmann said. “How can you when we lost what we lost? We weren’t perfect in that area, by any stretch, but I did not look at (predictions) and say, ‘They don’t know what they’re talking about.’ It seemed right.”
Ohio State was No. 41 on the official seed list, making the Buckeyes the final at-large selection to avoid a First Four game in Dayton. After tapdancing around for much of the season, the Buckeyes could officially break out their dancing shoes.
“This season has been a grind,” graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods said. “It’s been very up and down for all of us. I feel like as a team we handled it the best we could, with all the adversity that hit.”