What put No. 5 Ohio State in a position to win Friday night against Wisconsin was ultimately what held the Buckeyes back from being able to close out a Big Ten win.
With 9:19 to play, the Buckeyes got the ball to junior center and go-to player Kaleb Wesson. A more polished all-around player than during his first two seasons at Ohio State, Wesson has done his damage this season primarily by playing on the perimeter, stretching opposing defenses and asserting his physical presence on the block with much less frequency than has often been a necessity.
When he got the ball in this instance, he connected on a left-handed hook shot in the paint to push the Ohio State lead to 45-39 and give him 20 points for the evening. Of those 20 points, only three of them came from beyond the three-point line. That field goal came on what had been his only such attempt of the game, a shot that wasn't taken until 11:31 remained.
Wesson was doing work down low, and the Buckeyes were riding him. But as they learned last season, playing through the post can only take a team so far. And so, after his field goal with 9:19 remaining, the most dominant player on the court for Ohio State would get a short break, return to the lineup and play the final 7:39 and score only two more points.
They came on free throws with 6:32 to play. In the final 7:39, Wesson had two shots, and they were both threes. They came with 5:56 and 19 seconds remaining, respectively, and both were misses. There was one attempted post feed with 3:07 to play, but Duane Washington Jr. missed with a pass and sent it out of bounds for a turnover.
Otherwise, the faucet that had been the Ohio State offense had been wrenched shut because the Buckeyes couldn't get the ball to Wesson on the block. Afterward, a terse coach Chris Holtmann reiterated a similar sentiment to what was said repeatedly throughout last season's struggles about the challenges of playing through a go-to player on the block.
“The way the game is played today and called today, absolutely (it's hard),” Holtmann said. “It's why the NBA has went completely away from it. He's our best player. We've got to find a way to get him the ball in those situations later, but is it harder in todays' game? Absolutely. We need some other guys to respond. I thought some guys made some decent reads, we just didn't finish plays.”
The decision to allow Wesson to play on the perimeter this season was multi-faceted. In dropping nearly 40 pounds and bringing a new body type to the team, Wesson's development practically demanded it. But from a bigger standpoint, the Buckeyes needed him away from the basket more in order to hopefully prevent the prolonged scoring droughts seen last year. Plus, his lighter frame and improved quickness has been noticeable on the defensive end, where he's been able to stay in front of opposing guards with more success than before.
“I feel like it's a testament to my offseason work,” he said. “Working in there with Q (strength and conditioning coach Quadrian Banks) and some of the coaches, being able to guard smaller guys out there on the floor and perimeter, that's just how it worked. The offseason work, preparation, that's what we worked on.”
Wisconsin coach Greg Gard credited Wesson's overall development as noticed while preparing for the game.
“He's made himself into a really complete player,” he said. “He's changed his body a lot. You can tell that from his endurance and his stamina. He's added the three-point shot. He's a tough cover. He's one of the better big men in the country. It was going to take a group effort. Kaleb's a heck of a player.”
Going into the game, Holtmann said the coaching staff felt good about their chances with Wesson on the block because the Badgers didn't double-team the post much. He just wasn't too happy with how it played out over the course of the game.
“We felt like he was going to be guarded single-coverage much of the time,” he said. “They do a good job fronting the post and creating difficult angles to feed the post and playing on the high side. We were able to get him a few times, but listen, today's college game right now, they can do everything but tackle you across the lane and it not get called. We've got to figure out a way to play better in those situations where they're chucking and holding and grabbing.”
Wesson said the game unfolded in such a way that the coaches kept calling his number near the basket. In particular, he seemed to relish the opportunity to go against former backup Micah Potter, who was playing against his former teammates for the first time.
He just didn't get much help. Wesson got his 22 points on 7-of-10 shooting, and those numbers are affected by missing his final two threes. Washington Jr., Ohio State's second-leading scorer, had 18 points on inefficient 6-of-19 shooting.
The rest of the Buckeyes were 6 for 18 from the floor and 1 for 6 from three.
“I wouldn't say that my touches took away from theirs,” he said of his teammates. “That's just how the game goes. Coaches saw I had the hot hand early and they decided they wanted to feed me more. My teammates found me in the right spots to score and towards the end we saw that they were going to collapse and it was time for their shots. We just have to knock those down. I trust all my teammates to hit those shots.”
They have for much of the season. Friday night, they didn't.
The road that led Potter back to his former school was complicated and lengthy.
After quitting the Ohio State team days before the start of the 2018-19 season, finishing out the semester and transferring to the Badgers, Potter had multiple appeals for immediate eligibility denied by the NCAA despite supportive letters from both Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith and Holtmann. He wasn't eligible to suit up for Wisconsin until fall semester came to a close, making this his first Big Ten game in a new uniform and just his fourth game with the program.
Going into the game, Potter declined an interview request through a team spokesman. After the game, he was not one of the three players made available for reporters while Holtmann was simultaneously conducting his press conference.
Afterward Gard expressed his support for the fourth-year junior and native of Mentor, Ohio, as well as his disappointment in the overall process.
“He's one of the most mature, respectful people I've ever been around,” the coach said. “Going back through the whole waiver application process, as I've said many times that in all the meetings that we had and conference calls that we had, delivering bad news to him whether I had to do it or our compliance director had to do it or our assistant AD that they had rejected waiver after waiver after waiver after waiver, that the most mature adult in the room through all of that was Micah Potter.
“He was obviously frustrated because of it, because there's 10-12 games that he can't get back in his life. Chris and Gene here did a very good job of supporting it and trying to help, but unfortunately the NCAA doesn't always view things through a common-sense lens. Micah's the one at the end of the day who has to pay a price for it.”
He finished with four points, three rebounds, two fouls and two turnovers in 10:45.
“I thought he handled today fine,” Gard said. “I talked to him before he played a few weeks ago to (tell him) relax, you're not going to get 600-some days back in one possession. Same thing here tonight. He has a lot of respect for Ohio State. His brother's here on the football team. I thought he handled today much like he's handled (everything, as) a phenomenal person, and has been a great addition to our program.”
With Kyle Young watching from the bench after having his appendix removed Sunday night, Holtmann put Washington back into the starting lineup and slid Andre Wesson to power forward.
His absence was felt throughout the game. Andre Wesson had nine points on 3-of-6 shooting and had five rebounds, three assists and two turnovers, but as outlined above there wasn't a lot of help to be found.
Holtmann pointed to one specific area where Young was missed.
“Well, given the fact that (Tyler Wahl) had five offensive rebounds and we had trouble matching up with him … I'm sure he would've helped,” Holtmann said. “But listen, we've got good enough players to limit that. We've got to coach them to be better and play better.
Wahl's final offensive rebound was his most important. Ohio State had pulled within 55-54 on a Washington three-pointer with 56.7 seconds left and had a chance to take the lead when D'Mitrik Trice missed a shot only to see Wahl come up with the rebound to extend the possession. The Buckeyes would then foul Trice, and he hit two free throws with 26.2 seconds left to push the lead back to three points.
Asked if Young could be back Tuesday, when the Buckeyes go to Maryland, Holtmann said, “Not sure right now. It's game to game, but I'm not sure.”
Fun with numbers
A few things that jump out after studying the final box score…
*Wisconsin finished with 10 turnovers but did not commit any in the final 15:07 of the game. During that same span, the Buckeyes turned it over seven times and they came from five different players. Andre Wesson and D.J. Carton each had two while E.J. Liddell, Luther Muhammad and Washington each had one.
*The Buckeyes finished with 14 turnovers, but this was actually their third-lowest turnover percentage of the season at 16.3 percent.
*Carton and Liddell, the two freshmen to see playing time, struggled. Liddell had two points, one assist, one turnover and four fouls in 13:22 while Carton went scoreless with one assist and four turnovers in 20:30.
Kaleb Wesson was asked how the Buckeyes help the freshmen through tough performances like this one.
“Communication,” he said. “Keeping guys' spirits up in the locker room. A freshman, he's used to having a lot of success and he comes in and struggles and he might be down on himself. We tell him we brought you here for a reason. You can play. Come in next game and produce. It'll be all right.”
“Telling him to keep shooting. He's our shooter. That's the guy that we trust with those shots that we're giving him. All he needs to do is knock them down. He's going to do that. That's what he does and that's what he does it at a high level.” – Wesson, on his message to Washington after his shooting performance.