As is typically the case, the freshmen took top billing after Ohio State’s exhibition game Wednesday night. In what has become customary, the first-year players took to the postgame interview room at Value City Arena for their first public comments since joining the program during the summer.

There’s plenty to say and digest about what we saw from D.J. Carton, Ibrahima Diallo, Alonzo Gaffney and E.J. Liddell. Their play on the court, plus their expected contributions this season, guaranteed that.

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But hidden in the first comments from coach Chris Holtmann about the freshman class after a 95-52 win over Division II Cedarville was a subtle warning to a couple of players expected to play significant roles this year.

“We had some guys that were a little nervous, but I think what I was pleased with was the four freshmen really did try to play the way we’ve coached our group to play, and that’s really important,” he said. “We didn’t have that necessarily across the board with our group, and that’s frustrating, but those four guys kind of embraced what we were asking. They weren’t perfect. They missed some things, but I thought their approach was really good.”

He’s right about the freshmen, and it’s to be expected. It was the thoughts about other members of the team not playing the way the coaches were asking that piqued my interest.

On Ohio State’s first possession, sophomore Luther Muhammad's drive to the basket was soundly rejected by Cedarville center Kollin Van Horn. Not even three minutes later, Muhammad was again blocked by guard Branden Maughmer, who presented an early matchup challenge for the Buckeyes.

Then again, with 11:48 left in the first half, it was guard Demond Parker who rejected sophomore guard Duane Washington Jr. on an ill-advised drive to the hoop.

So when Holtmann referenced guys not playing within the game plan, was that what he was referring to?

“When you press, hard to be a good offensive player when you’re pressing and constantly forcing the issue,” he said. “I think sometimes we look at, we are a young group, and we’ve got guys that are moving into different roles. Not just different roles, but in their mind expectations are different and I think sometimes when you press it’s hard to play your best. You’re at your best when you’re just losing yourself in the game. We’ve got to do that and we’ve got to coach some of our guys to do that better.”

Muhammad had five points on 1-of-5 shooting in 17:03 of playing time. Washington, who unlike Muhammad came off the bench, was 1-of-7 and finished with two points in 17:49. 

Both players saw important playing time last season. Both will be counted on for more, but they will need to do it with greater efficiency.

It’s also true that one game, especially one exhibition game, does not a season make. If Ohio State is going to get where it is projected this season, it’s going to need its sophomores to assume bigger roles while staying within the framework of the game plan.

That will eventually include Justin Ahrens, but he is still working his way back from an offseason back injury and sat out the Louisville scrimmage 10 days prior. Holtmann said as much when asked to assess his sophomore class’s performance against the Yellow Jackets. 

“I thought a lot of room for growth,” he said. “I thought Luther was pretty solid tonight. In kids’ minds, if you look and evaluate your game exclusively by scoring, you’re going to be frustrated a lot as a young player. I thought Luther struggled a little early but did some things tonight and played pretty solid. I think Duane struggled in some ways, but did some good things. Justin’s still trying to feel his way around his back, but we’ve just got to, that group’s got to keep getting better because they’re going to be important for us this year.”

Young’s impact

Another hidden contributor in the box score was junior forward Kyle Young. He didn’t throw down highlight-reel dunks like Carton or demand the constant attention of Kaleb Wesson, but he came one rebound short of a double-double, finishing with 10 points and nine boards.

“Kyle, when he’s at his best he’s changing the game with his energy and playing off other guys,” Holtmann said. “That’s the way Kyle’s always been. When we recruited him to Butler, that’s what we saw. That’s the way he’s always been when we recruited him and the coaches, when I went and sat next to them at AAU they said they liked Kyle Young it was always his energy, his effort on the glass, his athleticism around the rim. It was always those things, and when he’s at his best he’s doing that at a really high level. I don’t think that’s going to change. He shot it well in the preseason, but he’s special when he’s doing those things.” 

Young was 3 of 6 from the floor. Five of his rebounds came on the offensive end.

Wesson dominates

Not to be outdone, however, was junior center Kaleb Wesson, who in his first appearance since shedding more than 30 pounds during the offseason proved unguardable. Although the Yellow Jackets were obviously at a size disadvantage, his stat line was impressive. 

In 22:40 of playing time, Wesson scored 23 points on 11 shots. He made nine field goals, was 3 of 4 from three-point range and had six rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals against just one turnover.

“As long as he can continue to move at the level he wants to move at, we want to move him around because I think that’s got to be, we’ve got to play through him outside and inside at times,” Holtmann said. “I thought he made a lot of good decisions. Made a couple sloppy passes on turnovers but he was terrific in a lot of ways. He’s worked on his body to the point to where he can really move and create difficult situations for the defense.”

Good to go

Liddell and Carton missed preseason time because of injury, a development that likely had at least something to do with both of them coming off the bench.

Holtmann said Tuesday that he expects a fluid starting lineup throughout the season, and both guys are likely candidates to appear there. If not for an undisclosed lower-leg injury that sidelined Liddell for about three weeks and a sprained ankle suffered in the Louisville exhibition, the two would be further along.

“Getting injured in the preseason, you have to stay good-minded and not rush anything,” Liddell said. “If you try to rush anything, it’s not going to be as (good) when you come back. We just have to keep mentally learning things while we were on the sideline watching. That was a big key, watching on the sideline and trying to learn things from the older guys.”

Carton said the experience taught him the importance of taking care of his body during a long season.

“We have a good training staff,” he said. “They did a good job of getting us back on the court fast and healthy. It’s hard. You’re going to have bumps and bruises every practice. You’ll have three-hour practices every day and you’re going to have to play through those bumps and bruises. I think one thing that I’ve learned is becoming smarter with my body knowing this is a long season. I’ll play a lot more games than I did in high school and putting focus into that recovery part of the game and really taking that in deep hopefully that will show out later here in the season.”

Quotable

“It felt like a dream come true. I grew up being a Buckeye fan. To be here felt surreal. Just glad to play with my brothers. It’s a special group and glad we got to play together and play well.” — Gaffney, on his debut

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy