The lights will now shine brightly on a streaky Ohio State men’s basketball team. These Buckeyes have struggled to maintain an identity, they’ve been prone to lapses in mental toughness and they’ve missed their most dynamic player, freshman point guard D.J. Carton.
Three weeks remain in the regular season.
Carton took a leave of absence at the end of January to tend to his mental health. Godspeed, young man. Coach Chris Holtmann and Carton’s teammates continue to make adjustments. To this point, they’re 4-1 without him. Not bad.
Saturday afternoon, they beat Purdue 68-52 before an announced crowd of 18,809, a sellout. Forward Kyle Young, the artful ironworker, had 16 points and seven rebounds. Center Kaleb Wesson filled out his scoreline with 13 points, eight rebounds, four assists, four steals and six turnovers.
On a team that gropes for a No. 2 scorer, Wesson is at his versatile best when anyone else steps to the fore. The Buckeyes are inventive when it comes to turning the ball over, and they are prone to offensive lulls. Young gave them some added personality.
Purdue coach Matt Painter, who recruited and continues to admire Young, was effusive in his praise of the Buckeyes — their defense in particular. That is one area that remains steady about Ohio State — their defense only rarely flags.
"At times I thought their defense was better than our offense," Painter said.
Meaning: If Purdue had been more efficient in converting Ohio State’s 10 first-half turnovers, the Boilermakers would have been closer than 29-20 at the break. If Purdue didn’t miss a raft of shots it usually makes, the game would’ve tightened considerably. As it was, Purdue never led. But Painter’s point is well-taken.
"They (the Buckeyes) didn’t play great today," Painter said, "but they played good enough to beat us, the way we played. … They can play great at home. Today wasn’t one of those days."
Ohio State (17-8, 7-7 in the Big Ten) got back to .500 in conference play. The Buckeyes beat a Purdue team (14-12, 7-8) that has romped over Michigan State and Iowa at home and beaten Indiana by 12 on the road.
Any conference victory in mid-February is something to be celebrated, and on Saturday, the Buckeyes beat Purdue by 16. Good on them.
"This league is big-boy basketball, every night," Holtmann said. "I thought we had some really good stretches of play this week, generally."
No doubt. After losing six of seven, the Buckeyes have won five of six and gotten their season back on a tournament track. But there is something about their intensity, or lack of it.
On Wednesday, they were up 20 in the second half against Rutgers but needed to make some late free throws to win by six. On Saturday, Purdue scored just 12 points over the first 16-plus minutes of the first half and, at the break, the Boilermakers were only down nine. To watch was to wonder, "Why isn’t Ohio State up by 20?"
Holtmann tacitly acknowledged as much when he said that if offensive lulls affect a team’s defensive game, "then you are one soft group, and we weren’t that today."
He also said, "The team has to play through missed shots and just move forward. That’s a toughness thing."
It is. Check out Dayton.
The bright lights are on the Buckeyes now. They needed to beat Purdue, and they did, before a national television audience on Fox. They move on to play Iowa on the road Thursday night, when ESPN will be in the house. Three days later, they’ll host Maryland — at the moment the best team in a brutally tough conference — and it’ll be on CBS.
For these Buckeyes, ranked No. 2 in the land eight weeks ago, it’s big-boy time.