To get a win it desperately needed, Ohio State had to try something different.
For the bulk of the last two seasons, center Kaleb Wesson has been an irreplaceable part of any success the Buckeyes men's basketball team has enjoyed. When Wesson picked up his fourth foul with 7:35 to play Sunday and Ohio State hanging onto a six-point lead at Northwestern, his teammates had to figure out how to win without him.
Their response might have given coach Chris Holtmann another option as the season continues. With their leading scorer and rebounder on the bench and no true center on the roster ready to step in, Ohio State pulled away from the Wildcats by going small.
It wasn't the first time the Buckeyes had done so this season, but it might have been the most effective.
“We've done that a few times before where we've had to play without him,” Holtmann said of Wesson. “He gives us such a presence, and teams game plan so much for him that we just felt like we were going to play smaller, and once that group was rolling when we went smaller we just decided to stay with it.”
Ahead 57-51 when Wesson picked up his fourth foul, Holtmann replaced the junior with freshman guard D.J. Carton. He joined fellow guards CJ Walker and Duane Washington Jr., natural wing Andre Wesson and power forward E.J. Liddell. After Northwestern trimmed the deficit to four points, junior Kyle Young replaced Liddell.
No member of that lineup is listed at greater than 220 pounds, with Young listed at 205 nominally manning the center position. Once he checked in with 5:08 to play, that lineup outscored Northwestern 10-4 over the next 4:12 to secure the win.
In this case and against this opponent, not trying to run the offense through a post player like Kaleb Wesson created more movement and flow.
“There's just a little bit more player movement,” Holtmann said. “Your offense can get stagnant at times when you're playing around a big and kind of force-feeding in a lot of ways.”
It wasn't the only offensive change for the game. Holtmann said the Buckeyes altered some of their ball-screen offense to give Northwestern a different look, and the game marked the most extensive usage of deploying Washington and Carton as the two backcourt options. Washington primarily manned the point with Carton playing off the ball, a look Holtmann used for 9:45 and exacerbated by a back injury to sophomore guard Luther Muhammad.
Carton credited the tweaks and a different energy level emphasized in practice for the win. Ohio State had 16 assists, tied for its most in conference play this season.
“We know that urgency and that energy needs to be here if we want to win,” he said. “All it took was a couple sparks. We had some big plays from a lot of the bench players on our team, a lot of guys stepping up. Those little sparks turned into a fire, and our team built off of that and fed off that.”
Should the Buckeyes go forward with more smaller lineups, Holtmann said Wesson is fine with that.
“Kaleb's a terrific teammate,” he said. “He understands we finished the game with the group because they were playing well. He's a great teammate.”