At no other point were Ohio State's offensive struggles so laid bare last season than at Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena.
A 68-50 loss to a Wildcats team that won only four Big Ten games was difficult to watch from the opening tip. Without primary offensive weapon Kaleb Wesson, who was suspended, an Ohio State offense that occasionally had struggled missed its first 13 shots, trailed 12-2 and didn’t make a field goal until 8:51 into the first half.
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“It was so hard for us to manufacture against a good defense,” coach Chris Holtmann said at the Big Ten media day this month. “Remember our Northwestern game, and that was a top-half defense in our league, and we just couldn’t score without (Kaleb).”
If this season’s team wants to avoid some of the offensive lulls that frequently hampered it before, it will need to do something that sounds simple: find a way to get more easy buckets.
“It’s critical for us,” Holtmann said. “We just could not get enough easy scores last year, whether in the half court or certainly in the open floor.”
The numbers help tell the story. Ohio State shot 49.7% from two-point range last season, a figure that ranked No. 199 nationally and was a significant drop-off from its 54.7% mark in the 2017-18 season (34th best).
Of the four players who played the season before and will be on this season’s roster, three saw their two-point shooting percentages tumble: Wesson from 58.2% to 54.9%, Andre Wesson from 54.8% to 51.2%, and Musa Jallow from 57.1% to 49.0%.
“We’re focusing on finishing, really,” Andre Wesson said. “Not looking for contact or seeking out contact or worrying about foul calls or trying to get to the foul line. Just focusing on finishing.”
The problem, as Holtmann pointed out often, was that last season's team wasn’t made up of guys who were built to drive to the basket and either score in the lane or get sent to the free-throw line. The only player to shoot more than 100 free throws was Kaleb Wesson, who primarily made his living in the post.
That’s where some new faces are expected to help.
At point guard, freshman D.J. Carton needed only a few practices to show the coaching staff that he can make plays in the open court and in transition, which should result in some easy baskets. In an anonymous poll of returning players taken by The Dispatch, Carton was voted the best dunker on the team.
“We’ve got guys that have real opportunities in the open floor, particularly D.J,” Holtmann said. “He’s tremendous in the open court.”
The same goes for fellow freshmen Alonzo Gaffney and E.J. Liddell, to different degrees. Gaffney can “deck” the ball, as Holtmann puts it, and slash from the wings. Liddell is a high-level scorer expected to produce around the rim. And Florida State transfer CJ Walker has shown that he can aggressively score in transition.
With more scoring options around him, and the additional space the deeper three-point line should create, the hope is that it will make for easier opportunities for Kaleb Wesson against opposing halfcourt defenses. That, in turn, could open things up elsewhere.
“Our inability to touch the paint, it’s definitely different,” Holtmann said. “That’s a really critical area for us. I don’t know that I definitively have the answers right now, but I’m more optimistic with that particular area.”