TULSA, Okla. — So many of the preseason questions about Ohio State circled around a common theme: In times of trouble, who would answer the call to action both on the court and in the huddle?
With a leadership void on a young team, there weren’t a lot of early answers. When adversity hit in a major way as Big Ten play saw the team's record plummet back to earth, it loomed even larger. Now, entering Friday night’s NCAA Midwest Regional game against No. 6 seed Iowa State, the Buckeyes think they’ve come up with a few solid answers.
In a game against a team with an offense as explosive as Ohio State has seen all season, those lessons could be the difference between an extended residency at the BOK Center and a quiet flight home to Columbus with seniors C.J. Jackson and Joey Lane and graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods facing the end of their careers.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
“I feel like we’ve got an understanding now,” sophomore center Kaleb Wesson said. “We’ve got leaders like Key, C.J., guys like that we can lean on in late-game situations, guys like me, able to make tough plays in tough situations during the game.”
Sometimes that comes down to making plays at pivotal moments. Last season, senior Kam Williams helped the Buckeyes overcome an upset challenge from South Dakota State in their NCAA Tournament opener with some clutch shooting in the final moments.
On the bus ride to the arena Thursday afternoon, coach Chris Holtmann said he was joking with his assistants that Williams had no idea about the shot clock, the game clock or the score when the ball made its way to him.
“Last year, we went to Kam strictly because Kam had a look in his eye in the South Dakota State game and he was hungry,” Holtmann said. “He just saw (Andrew) Dakich toss it out to him, he saw ball and rim and he was going to shoot it. There is some of that with a player this time of year that you want.”
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Recently, Woods has shown some of the same traits. Starting with the final 10 minutes of the Wisconsin game that closed the regular season and continuing through a two-game run in the Big Ten tournament, the team’s most experienced player has asserted himself in key situations.
On the court, Holtmann said leadership is more likely to be handled by a perimeter player because of the inherent difficulties in getting the ball inside late in games. It’s the role Woods was brought to Ohio State to play, and one he sheepishly agreed he’s started to assume.
“Everybody looks at me as the old head, some of the most experience on the team, but they come toot me for advice,” he said. “If I talk, they listen. They look at me and we just move on and move on from the play. I feel like I’m more confident now than I was early in the season.”
There have been plenty of opportunities for leadership growth, from the five-game losing streak in January to Wesson’s three-game suspension to close the regular season. Those two stretches accounted for all but six of Ohio State’s 14 losses.
With the season on the line, any lessons learned have to be applied now.
“I do think we’ve begun to answer that question here more, certainly the last couple of weeks have been critical for that,” Holtmann said. “And we’ve had different guys step up throughout the season. I think we do have a good feel for that.”