Chris Holtmann didn’t mince many words Monday afternoon about Duane Washington’s game against Indiana on Saturday.
In addressing why the team’s second-leading scorer played only eight minutes in a 12-point road loss to the Hoosiers, Holtmann said he needed to see more effort and focus from the sophomore guard than what he had displayed in his limited playing time that game.
But the directness with which Holtmann spoke as the Buckeyes prepared to host Nebraska on Tuesday night paled in comparison to the perspective he drew upon postgame to describe the suspensions handed out to Washington and classmate Luther Muhammad. Riding a four-game losing streak brought about by well-documented offensive struggles that brought uncomfortable flashbacks to last season, the Buckeyes entered what felt like a must-win game in January without two key members of their rotation and left with only two scholarship guards available.
Holtmann still made the decision, and after the 80-68 win he made it clear that it had more to do with just the game against the Cornhuskers.
"I don’t know that there’s a specific message (I’m sending)," he said. "I’m not coaching for just one game. Ever. I’m not ever doing that. I’m not ever coaching just to win one game or put our best team on the floor for one game. They’re more important to me than that, and it’s more important to me than that. And if I ever get to the point to where I coach for just one game, I’m getting out. See ya. Peace out. Not doing it.
"For me, it’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than that for them, it’s bigger than that for me."
The official explanation was that the players were suspended for a failure to meet program standards and expectations. Later in his press conference, Holtmann referenced a specific incident that was brought to the attention of the coaching staff.
The suspension is open-ended and at Holtmann’s discretion. Neither player is facing any sort of legal action or university-mandated suspension, a source has told The Dispatch. Holtmann said he had been leaning toward suspending the two players Monday when he spoke with reporters but didn’t make a final decision until earlier in the day Tuesday.
Junior CJ Walker, who without the two guards played a career-high 37:28 and scored a season-high 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting, said the players found out Tuesday.
"We didn’t find out until late," he said. "We didn’t really know what was going on, so we kind of figured out super late. It was a quick adjustment, a big adjustment for us with Duane being a big scorer for us, Luther, the same, (and his) defense. It was a big adjustment for us. We kind of played out today and were able to make shots today. It was able to work itself out but we most definitely missed them and can’t wait for them to get back."
In the pregame hype video featuring clips of the players both posing for the camera and in game action that is shown on the scoreboard at Value City Arena, Muhammad and Washington made a combined 10 appearances as it was played shortly before Tuesday night’s opening tip.
Neither player was on the bench for warmups or the game itself. When Kaleb Wesson was suspended for the final three games of the 2018-19 season, he remained with the team in all situations.
Holtmann said Washington and Muhammad were in the building.
"They had a great attitude," he said. "They were supporting their teammates in the locker room. They had a great approach."
Even with the recent shooting woes that have affected seemingly every player on the roster, Muhammad and Washington had been among the team’s best three-point shooters in home games. Combined, Muhammad (13 for 29, 44.8%) and Washington (22 for 43, 51.2%) were 35 for 72 (48.6%) from three-point range when playing at home.
The rest of the Buckeyes were a combined 60 for 157 (38.2%). But against the Cornhuskers, Ohio State went 10 for 22 (45.5%) from three and improved to 6-0 when making at least 10 threes in a game this season.
Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg said the late announcement about the suspensions didn’t affect his team’s pregame preparations because the Cornhuskers were primarily focused on stopping junior Kaleb Wesson in the paint.
"That didn’t change our game plan," he said. "We had to sit in and try to take away the paint on Wesson. When Andre Wesson hit those threes I thought it did get us spread out a little more. When you don’t get back in transition and get loaded on the ball, that’s where they hurt you."
As the losses have come in succession, Holtmann and his players have talked about a need to get things right in practice before seeing results on game nights. It’s not an overnight process, and seeing a pair of key players draw suspensions would seemingly indicate that the Buckeyes haven’t yet grasped that concept.
Holtmann disputed that notion while wondering what some recent practice showings might portend for the future.
"We’ve had some better practices here of late," he said. "I’m anxious to see if that continues and I’m anxious to see collectively what our approach and attitude is consistently. When I see that and when we see that consistently and feel good about that, I’ll live with the results."
That will include the path to a full return for both Muhammad and Washington. Holtmann said that process will be day-to-day and their status for Saturday’s game at Penn State is still to be determined.
The lessons Holtmann is trying to get across are applicable across the roster. Repeatedly, the coach has said this team will go as far as its veterans – senior Andre Wesson and juniors Kyle Young, Kaleb Wesson and Walker – can take it.
Kaleb Wesson said Holtmann’s decision sent a message to everybody, particularly after his own three-game suspension last season that has been put firmly in the rearview mirror.
"It’s letting guys know what’s tolerable and what’s not," he said. "This is just a learning step. We went through the same thing last year. You learn from it, you move on."