TULSA, Okla. — Will Rogers, the folksy humorist of the early 20th century, was born in Cherokee Nation, just up the road from the BOK Center, where Ohio State will play Iowa State on Friday night in the NCAA Tournament.
Actually, Rogers’ birthplace is about 45 miles from the arena, but in the gaping expanse of the plains, 45 miles equals the slit of space between 10 teens cramming into a selfie.
Put another way, using the mile-is-a-meter measuring standard of the open range, if Kaleb Wesson stood at one end of the court and the player he was guarding stood at the other, the Ohio State sophomore center would get whistled for a reach-in foul.
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That is only a slight exaggeration. Wesson, the Buckeyes’ 6-foot-9, 270-pound rim protector, collects fouls the way pioneers collected burs while crossing the prairie. Barely take a step and dang, there’s another one.
What does any of this have to do with Rogers? Just this: Chris Holtmann is not a wise-cracking cowboy comedian, but the Ohio State men’s basketball coach uttered a homespun Rogers-like line the other day that went something like this: Wesson shows up early only to arrive late.
“Defensively, he sees things early,” Holtmann said of Wesson. “But he can’t always get there in time.”
Or, as Holtmann explained it again Thursday, “Sometimes, (Wesson) can’t get his body out of harm’s way.”
And sometimes is too many times for the Buckeyes, who without Wesson must rely on perimeter shooting that comes and goes. But mostly goes. Of Ohio State’s 14 losses this season, Wesson fouled out of four, had four fouls in two others, which limited his effectiveness, and did not play in three others, due to suspension for violating athletic department policy.
It doesn’t get much more plain-speak than this: With Wesson on the bench, the Buckeyes barely stand a chance.
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“If we’re going to be able to beat a quality opponent, he can’t play 10 or 15 minutes,” Holtmann continued. “The reality is we need him to play. We need him in there 20 to 28 minutes to beat somebody good.”
Ohio State plays somebody good Friday in No. 6 seed Iowa State. The Cyclones (23-11) are strong at guard, dangerous in transition and are expected to enjoy a Cyclones-heavy crowd at the BOK.
Even with Wesson playing 20 to 28 minutes, the No. 11 Buckeyes will have their hands full. If the Westerville South graduate gets in early foul trouble? It will be a one-and-done Shining Moment.
So what to do? How to keep the big guy on the floor?
Wesson offered the same solution — “control the controllables” — three times in three minutes Thursday before Ohio State began practice.
“Don’t put myself in position where the refs can make a tough call (against me),” he said, again and again.
He also said he needs to play smarter.
“It’s some physical, but mostly between the ears,” he said.
He’s right and wrong. Wesson is basketball savvy, but his brain goes fuzzy when his body gets tired — and his conditioning needs some work — which leads to careless fouls. The physical dictates the mental.
Greg Oden knows all about it. The former Ohio State center, who is finishing up as Buckeyes student-coach, explained that, “When you get tired, you stop thinking.”
Oden then gave an impish explanation for how Wesson can cut down on getting whistled.
“Don’t get caught,” the 7-footer said, smiling. “There’s no secret to it. We’re big, so we already have a disadvantage. Refs already are going to see us as overpowering, so we have to exaggerate everything to not make it look like a foul.”
Essentially, Wesson needs to be sharper in anticipating situations. Because if he fouls out, the Buckeyes will fall out of March Madness sooner than later.