An Ohio State program that has flown under the radar for more than half a decade now has to deal with suddenly increased expectations. Coach Chris Holtmann credits his young players for their laser-like focus while also trying to pump the brakes on the hype train.
There’s no way of knowing when the thought became reality Wednesday night at Value City Arena.
It might have been when D.J. Carton threw down a dunk that would push No. 16 Ohio State ahead of No. 10 Villanova by 28 points midway through the second half, or it could have been when Duane Washington Jr.’s third three-pointer of the night gave the Buckeyes a two-touchdown lead only three minutes into the game.
Then the final horn blew, Ohio State’s 25-point rout of the Wildcats was complete, and a new reality had arrived. How would an Ohio State program that has flown under the radar for more than half a decade deal with suddenly increased expectations?
Coach Chris Holtmann spent much of the ensuing news conference crediting his players for their laser-like focus while also trying to pump the brakes on the hype train.
“I shouldn’t need to pump the brakes on people who understand basketball and how long the season is and the challenges,” Holtmann said after the win. “Our players earned this tonight, but they also understand. I think knowledgeable people who understand the game know there’s a lot between now and March.”
And yet, the hype has arrived. On a team with an all-league candidate in Kaleb Wesson, a freshman point guard in Carton who has already twice made SportsCenter’s top 10 highlight list, and a bunch of growing young players, Ohio State is now being looked at as a team with greater expectations than it has faced in years.
The win, and the way in which it happened, got national college basketball writers taking note on Twitter. ESPN’s Dick Vitale called Holtmann his coach of the night and said the Buckeyes will challenge Michigan State and Maryland to be No. 1 in the Big Ten. Jeff Goodman of Stadium described the Buckeyes as a “potential Final Four team.” In his daily power rankings, CBSSports’ Gary Parrish moved Ohio State up eight spots to No. 10 in the nation while calling what the Buckeyes did to Villanova “one of the most impressive victories any team has recorded so far this season.”
So from an external standpoint, yeah, things are already changing, and people are taking note. At the same time, senior walk-on Danny Hummer said the players have noticed that two No. 1 teams — first Michigan State and then Kentucky — had already taken losses by mid-November. The Wildcats were upset at home by an Evansville team that had entered Tuesday’s game ranked 169th by KenPom.com.
With four freshmen and three sophomores, the Buckeyes are the 54th-youngest team in the nation, according to KenPom.com. That’s why Holtmann said throughout the preseason that this group will go as far as those passing for its veterans on scholarship — senior Andre Wesson and juniors Kaleb Wesson, Kyle Young and CJ Walker — can lead it.
“We’ve got a chip on our shoulder, and we’re focused,” Walker said. “We just want to keep getting better and prove that we can play at a high level.”
It’s a daily process and was something the Buckeyes planned to address head-on at Friday’s practice. Last season’s 12-1 start that begat a five-game Big Ten losing streak looms, but this year’s team sees itself in a different light.
“I feel like we found out that we’re very hungry,” Carton said. “We’ve been very hungry all season long, and I think we have things to prove. I’m having a great time on the floor with my teammates, and I think as long as that keeps going forward, we’ll continue to learn and progress from there.”
Holtmann said the common thread for teams that handle wins like the one against Villanova is maturity and great leadership.
“Your (season) is never defined by one particular game,” Holtmann said. “It just isn’t, unless it’s in March or April, really. This time of year, whether you lose or whether you win, it just is about: What is your response after that?”
What will this particular win do for the Buckeyes? Stay tuned.