The big picture questions were lobbed around again Sunday evening at Value City Arena in a way that felt strangely familiar.
Moments before, No. 25 Ohio State had used a strong run to close the first half and open the second to earn an important home win against a top-10 Big Ten opponent. In front of a crowd dotted with key recruits that occasionally grew so loud that the officials couldn’t even hear the in-arena announcer, the Buckeyes led No. 7 Maryland for 30:50 and pulled away for a 79-72 win.
It was a big win for a program that needed some validation against a top-level opponent. And it all felt like a similar result two years ago, during coach Chris Holtmann’s first season with the program.
Remember the game? Unranked Ohio State closed the first half with a flurry against No. 1 Michigan State and ran away to a victory that announced the program’s arrival on the national stage following years of growing mediocrity.
The vibe was a similar one Sunday evening. Guys made shots. Recruits were in the stands. A national television audience was watching. Ohio State basketball was fun again.
Is this what the Holtmann sees as the vision for the program?
"I hope so," he said afterward. "I think there is an element of that where you are saying, this is them coming on our floor in a weekend game in front of a great crowd. We’d better compete with everything we are, and if not, then that’s not who we need to be at all. This is who we need to be consistently.
"I think I expected that we would perform well because I think we’ve got a competitive group, but I was tied in knots the last day and a half because sometimes it’s hard to read your group. That’s always been the case. First five minutes I felt like, we’re going to compete today."
They showed it early, but it was in the moments leading up to and out of halftime that set the outcome. Tied at 30-all, Luther Muhammad hit a three with 2:49 remaining to start what would be a 10-3 run to close the half. Then when the Buckeyes opened the second half with a 7-0 run, it proved to be the difference.
Along the way, Ohio State made play after play to fend off a Maryland team that had won nine straight and cemented itself as the favorite to win a Big Ten title.
"We’ve been in some of those moments," Holtmann said. "We haven’t been in a ton of them, so when you do see us respond well, it’s good. We’ve not always responded well to those moments. I can think of a couple games here where I didn’t feel like we had great possessions offensively late that were frustrating. Hopefully that’s a growth for us. Some of that is us figuring out where to put our guys in certain situations. That was good to see."
Two games he was certainly alluding to: a four-point home loss to Wisconsin on Jan. 3 and a three-point home loss to Minnesota on Jan. 23.
This time, and coming off a frustrating loss at No. 20 Iowa on Thursday, the Buckeyes showed toughness in climbing back to .500 again in league play.
So did they learn something new about themselves on Sunday?
"Not that we didn’t know," junior center Kaleb Wesson said. "I think it just shows how tough we are. We know how tough we are, what we’ve been doing, how hard we’ve been working. It just show you all."
Added Muhammad, "Next day." As in, onto.
Visitors on hand
The Buckeyes hosted a number of recruits with a list highlighted by one official visit.
Five-star small forward Kendall Brown, a 2021 recruit from Wichita (Kansas) Sunrise Christian, was in attendance on his official visit. The top player in the nation at his position according to 247Sports.com, Brown is the nation’s No. 20 overall recruit in 2021 and also holds offers from Kansas, Marquette, Minnesota and others.
He was seated next to Ohio State’s two verbal commitments for the class: power forward Kalen Etzler from Convoy (Ohio) Crestview and guard Meechie Johnson Jr. from Willoughby (Ohio) Osborne Academy. Both are four-star recruits.
Also sitting with them was Malaki Branham, a four-star combo guard from Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary who is the top recruit in the state for the class.
Isaac McKneely, a 2022 shooting guard from Poca, West Virginia, was on hand. So was classmate and guard DJ Moore, a Worthington Christian product.
Duo in check
They credited the team’s overall defense for the final stats, but Muhammad and Wesson were instrumental in limiting Maryland’s primary players.
Jalen "Stix" Smith, Maryland’s center who brought a streak of nine straight double-doubles into the game, finished with eight points and seven rebounds while primary being defended by Wesson. Cowan, who had 20 points against the Buckeyes in the first meeting this season, finished with 10 but was just 1 for 4 from the floor while being hounded by Muhammad.
"They’re more than that, (but) those two guys are critical," Holtmann said of Smith and Cowan. "I thought Kaleb did a great job on Stix today, who’s a fantastic player. I thought Luther did a really good job on Cowan. (Aaron) Wiggins is really good. (Eric) Ayala is a really good player. (Darryl) Morsell gives them so much with the way he plays. Donta Scott has performed well for them. There’s a reason why they were top 10 in the country. They’ve got a variety of guys, but it begins with those guys."
Smith is in the running for Big Ten player of the year, but he’s not done much against the Buckeyes this season. He had 11 points in Maryland’s win earlier this season, then had scored at least that total in each of the next 11 games for the Terrapins before finishing with eight points, tying a season low.
As the Buckeyes were getting their second half rolling, Wesson had a pair of defensive stops on Smith in the paint to help set the tone.
"I just had a lot of help," Wesson said of guarding Smith. "We played team defense today at a high level. That helped stop their aggressive scorers that we have. I don’t know how people look at me as a defender, but I guess I’ve grown up. Even in high school, my defense was taught well."
Cowan, meanwhile, was 8 for 9 from the free-throw line and had seven assists but fouled out.
"He likes to kind of jab and draw the foul," Muhammad said of Cowan. "Instead of handing my hand out there they said to have my hand up. That was the only adjustment I made. A lot of it’s on my help defense. I guard him one on one but my help is always there so I can press up and do my own thing."
*After averaging 15.0 turnovers in their last two games, the Buckeyes had 10 against Maryland.
*Ohio State is now 10-0 when making at least 10 three-pointers in a game. The Buckeyes were 10 for 25 against Maryland but started 5 for 9 from deep.
"That is a pretty big telltale sign," Holtmann said. "I don’t know if we can beat really good people without making a number of threes because that’s the strength of several guys on our team. That’s what they do. We don’t have two or three guys that are like Jae’Sean Tate."
*The Buckeyes pulled down 13 offensive rebounds and had a 14-5 advantage in second-chance points.
"That might’ve been the difference is our ability to get 13 offensive rebounds to their six," Holtmann said. "Offensive rebounds were critical."
*Led by Muhammad and Duane Washington Jr. who were 8 for 8 and 7 for 8, respectively, Ohio State was 23 for 28 from the free-throw line.
"You try to get your better free-throw shooters there as much as possible when you’re closing a game out," Holtmann said. "That’s your job as a coach, and then it’s be confident up there, trust your stroke, enjoy the moment, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. It’s our job to try to get the right guys there on the line."
With his 15 points and nine rebounds, Wesson is up to 1,183 and 634, respectively, for his career. He is No. 39 on the school’s all-time scoring list and No. 19 in rebounds.
"I thought he was really good," Holtmann said. "I thought he played well. I thought he competed defensively against a really good player. Two turnovers, three assists, efficient from the field. What he makes so difficult is when you play him in different spots and invert the offense, it just, there’s a reason why we were 13th in the league last year in offensive efficiency and going into this game we were fourth. There’s other reasons, but his ability to make it difficult for other teams to figure out how they’re going to defend some of that stuff has been critical."
"Any competitor takes disappointing performances. The way we played was not all on Kaleb by any stretch. People want to make it into a one-on-one battle. It was not that. It was our team against their team. They beat us the other night. They coached better and played better than us the other night. I think all of us take those moments and figure out how can we do better. That had to be our response the next day. Shame on us if that’s not our response. If we didn’t come back the next in practice with how do we be better, then shame on us. I think he did that. He’s a competitor. He responded that way." – Holtmann, on if Wesson took Thursday’s Iowa loss into this game.