If No. 2 Ohio State is going to notch a fourth win against a ranked team, the Buckeyes are going to have to contend with the pressure that No. 22 West Virginia presents. And to say that has occasionally been a issue for Ohio State recently might be an understatement.
Given a few days of respite around Christmas, those weren’t visions of sugarplums dancing through Chris Holtmann’s head.
Close your eyes, look one way, and a hard-charging defender intent on stealing the ball comes to mind. Charging in from the blind side is another defender. Split that attack, get the ball upcourt, and face a frontcourt with some of the nation’s biggest and toughest players.
Throughout, each of these apparitions was dressed in the Old Gold and Blue of No. 22 West Virginia. On Sunday, they come to life on the home court of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers in the No. 2 Buckeyes’ final nonconference game of the season.
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If the Buckeyes are going to notch a fourth win against a ranked team, they are going to have to contend with the pressure the Mountaineers present. And to say that has occasionally been a issue for the Buckeyes recently might be an understatement.
"They never give up anything," junior guard CJ Walker said Thursday. "They’re going to full-court-pressure you for the whole 40 minutes. They’re going to make you do things you’re not used to in a game."
From 2015 to ’18, West Virginia finished first or second in the nation in defensive turnover percentage. This season’s team ranks 139th at 20.2 percent, but it is third-best in effective field-goal percentage defense and fourth in three-point defense, and it has four projected starters who are 6 feet 7 or taller.
"This looks like one of (coach Bob Huggins’) typical, great West Virginia teams that can reach a Final Four," Holtmann said. "I think they look that much different than last year because of how long they are and how physical."
After turning the ball over a season-low nine times against Penn State’s pressure, the Buckeyes have averaged 16.3 turnovers in their past three games, including 21 times against Southeast Missouri. In their most recent game, the Buckeyes had 14 turnovers in a win against Kentucky, but only three came from primary ball-handlers D.J. Carton and Walker.
Carton also scored 15 points and played the final 16-plus minutes of the game.
"I would say for sure that’s the most comfortable I’ve felt," Carton said of the win against the Wildcats. "I just felt I’ve been there before. I just felt confident in myself and the people around me."
Carton and Walker combined for seven assists as they continue to get more comfortable playing alongside each other. Carton said he goes against Walker 99 percent of the time in practice, and he called Walker one of the best perimeter defenders in the nation. In practice, Holtmann has senior walk-on Danny Hummer guard Carton full-court in every drill, Carton said.
It all helps prepare players for the type of pressure that West Virginia is going to bring, but Holtmann wasn’t ready to say that his team had solved its issues against such teams.
"I think it’s a work in progress with all of our guards, but obviously you have a freshman point guard who’s got a heavy load to carry some of that," Holtmann said. "That’s as much as I can say right now. We’re not there. It’s obviously one of the main things that could really limit our group is the inability to take care of the ball consistently."