It’s been stated over and over again that Kaleb Wesson has been Ohio State’s most important player this season.
That was proven again during the final moments of the first half in Sunday’s 70-57 loss at Wisconsin. With 7:47 remaining and the score tied at 15 inside the Kohl Center, Wesson picked up a second foul and was replaced by junior forward Kyle Young.
From that point, the Badgers would close the half with a 23-5 run, scoring the final 16 points going into the locker room to blow the game wide open.
"It definitely affected us defensively and offensively, him being out, more so than it had in prior games which is why I was more willing to keep him on the bench," coach Chris Holtmann said Tuesday. "Obviously hindsight, you wish you’d gotten him in earlier."
In many cases, Holtmann has been willing to re-insert a player like Wesson with two first-half fouls. In this case, he waited until 1:06 remained when he subbed in to replace freshman Alonzo Gaffney and the deficit was already 33-20.
Before Wesson picked up his second foul, Wisconsin had actually put together an 8-2 run in the span of 2:30, the final 1:45 of which saw Wesson on the court. He was replaced by Young, giving the Buckeyes a lineup of CJ Walker and Duane Washington in the backcourt, Justin Ahrens and E.J. Liddell at the forward spots and Young as the center.
It was only the second time this season the Buckeyes had used that lineup, and it had been outscored 8-4 in 3:18 of last Tuesday’s win at Michigan. The Badgers got a quick three-pointer and then two free-throws for a 5-0 run and Andre Wesson returned to the game in place of Liddell with 6:38 to play and the Wisconsin lead up to 20-15.
This lineup had never been used before, but it didn’t allow any points – or score any – during the next 1:03 before Luther Muhammad replaced Walker with 5:35 left in the half. This lineup, too, was making its season debut, and it got a Washington bucket on a drive and a three-pointer from Andre Wesson sandwiched around a Micah Potter shot over Young, making it a 22-20 Wisconsin lead before the Badgers caught fire.
When Holtmann called timeout with 3:29 to play, Wisconsin had pushed its lead to 27-20. He made two subs: Walker and Gaffney entered the game in place of Ahrens and Young.
This would be Gaffney’s first minutes of the game, the first time the Buckeyes used a three-guard lineup and the first time this lineup had been used all season. Holtmann went with Walker, Washington and Muhammad as the guards and Gaffney and Andre Wesson as his post players.
Defensively, this group held its own, only allowing a D’Mitrik Trice three-pointer during a shift of 1:49. Offensively, it was another story.
Walker was credited with a blocked jumper. Washington had the ball stolen out of his hands. Wesson missed a quick three-pointer, and then Washington missed a deep one and was subbed out by Ahrens with 1:40 left and the deficit at 30-20.
This lineup had played for a total of two seconds, and it had allowed a three-pointer. It immediately gave up a Brevin Pritzl three-pointer, and after Wesson dribbled the ball off his knee and out of bounds Holtmann subbed his younger brother back into the game in place of Gaffney after the lineup had played 34 seconds.
The lineup of Walker, Muhammad, Ahrens and the Wesson brothers had been plus-9 for the season in a total of 5:18 of playing time, but it allowed the final five points of the half to set the deficit at 38-20.
"I just thought we had errors offensively and defensively (with Kaleb Wesson on the bench)," Holtmann said. "And we missed a wide-open corner three (Muhammad, with 23 seconds left), but we had some errors offensively and defensively, some scramble situations we didn’t cover very well, an offensive rebound that they ended up getting a three on a scramble situation (that made it 25-20). Really, it was a combination of both ends."
During the second half, Ahrens did not return until 7:15 remained and the deficit was at a game-high 24 points. Gaffney remained on the bench until he replaced Kaleb Wesson with 1:09 to play, and Washington sat for the final 7:15 when Ahrens replaced him.
Asked what the key was to staying competitive without Kaleb Wesson in the game, Liddell said, "We all have to stay together instead of peeling apart and doing our own thing."