As the looming madness of March beckons, Ohio State’s big bully — not exactly how I would describe Kaleb Wesson, but keep reading — is the most crucial centerpiece of the Buckeyes’ remaining season.
When Wesson first was promoted to Main Man In Charge last season as a 6-foot-9 sophomore, the script went "Parasite" in late February, as in, "Who saw that coming?"
It was almost a year ago (March 1) that Wesson was suspended three games for violating athletic department policy, leaving Ohio State without its leading scorer, rebounder and rim protector. The Buckeyes lost all three games, putting an NCAA Tournament invitation in jeopardy.
Ohio State needed Wesson to come up big down the stretch. Instead, he disappeared, only to reappear in the Big Ten tournament opener against Indiana as a better version of his pre-suspension self, scoring 17 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in a crucial win.
Jump ahead one year to what can be described as a fairly mirror image of the 2018-19 season — two 12-1 starts through Christmas followed by strings of losses. And like last season, Wesson needs to show up now, not every now and then.
Wesson went full "now" on Sunday afternoon in 25th-ranked Ohio State’s 79-72 win over No. 7 Maryland at vibrantly loud Value City Arena. The junior from Westerville South finished with 15 points, nine rebounds and held 6-10 forward Jalen Smith in check defensively. Smith, who entered averaging 15.4 points and 10.5 rebounds, good for seventh- and second-best in the Big Ten, respectively, managed only eight and seven against OSU.
"When Kaleb plays like this, he impacts the game at a high level on both ends," Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. "He plays like one of the best bigs in the country."
Now, the bully stuff. Maryland coach Mark Turgeon gave Wesson the granddaddy of all backhanded comments, sandwiching superlatives around an assertion that Wesson intimidated his way up and down the court. Turgeon described Wesson as hard to guard before uttering the B-word.
"He was allowed to be the bully offensively today," Turgeon said. "I just thought he stuck his forearm right into (Smith’s) chest twice. I guess you’re allowed to do that in this building. If he’s allowed to be the bully, he’s a heck of a player."
Turgeon’s words were relayed to Holtmann, whose eyebrows arched more than a certain famous war memorial monument in Paris.
"To each his own. His opinion can be his opinion," Holtmann said. "I thought Kaleb was physical and well within the rules, and played hard and played tough."
I didn’t notice Wesson giving Smith the business, but at times it can be challenging to notice Wesson at all. His game is solid, not flashy, and it can go dormant with little explanation, as it did in Thursday’s 86-75 loss at Iowa.
Every player has off nights, but when as central to your team’s success as Wesson is, the off nights need to be few and the cliffs far between.
That is where the Buckeyes (18-9, 8-8 Big Ten) are today, with Wesson needing to bring his skill as a scorer, rebounder, passer — he is excellent at getting the ball to the right players in the right spots — into every game.
He was an impressive load against the Terrapins (22-5, 12-4), his presence opening scoring opportunities for Luther Muhammad (22 points) and Duane Washington Jr. (13). Now can he do it again at Nebraska on Thursday? Against Michigan next Sunday, and so on? If not, the Buckeyes become chips without queso — pretty plain.
But when Wesson comes to play, holy guacamole this team is pretty darn good.