Rob Oller | Football fans, it's a good time to jump on the Ohio State basketball bandwagon

Rob Oller
Ohio State's Kaleb Wesson muscles to the basket during a 76-51 victory against Villanova on Nov. 13. If you've been preoccupied with football, you might have missed the fact that the Buckeyes have impressive nonconference wins against Villanova, North Carolina and Kentucky this season. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

In the Ohio State football equivalent of Middle Earth, where Fiesta Bowl game officials are Orcs and Michigan is Mordor, the all-seeing eye searches day and night for a national championship ring.

Only when that ring is destroyed — yet again by Clemson — does the eye look elsewhere. To Buckeyes basketball.

Don't be insulted, OSU hoops junkies. It is simply the order of things. Bees make honey. Buckeye Nation pays full attention to basketball only when its football title hopes are dead and buried.

Like now.

Instead of feeling slighted, look at Friday's home game against Wisconsin as the first meaty scene after the opening credits, which provided strong action in their own right, given the nonconference wins against Villanova, North Carolina and Kentucky. But full-tilt Big Ten play begins with the Badgers, and even then Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann won't know exactly what he has for another few weeks.

Just as it takes NHL and NBA coaches about 30 games in an 82-game season to get an accurate read on their teams, it takes until about mid-January before college basketball coaches can say, “OK, this is who we are.”

“The way I look at it is (when) you get to 10 to 15 games of like competition is when you get a pretty good gauge on where your team is at,” Holtmann said Thursday. “At that point you're into mid-January.”

Hear that, football-to-basketball crossover fans? You can still get up to speed with this team before the dust settles. The Buckeyes, 11-2 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten, play seven games in the next 24 days, after which we'll know what makes them tick.

I'm most intrigued by the evolution of Kaleb Wesson. The not-as-big man — he lost almost 30 pounds during the offseason — is still adapting as an offensive player. Post and pound? Take the three? It takes time to integrate into a new body that can do new things.

Turnovers have been an issue of late. The Buckeyes committed 22 in Sunday's 67-59 loss to West Virginia, including nine by the point guards, prompting Holtmann to wonder if some players were thinking more “me” than “we” against the Mountaineers.

Overall, however, Ohio State has looked excellent. Sorry if you've missed it. And welcome aboard if so. I asked Holtmann to summarize the season for those who never took their eyes off of Justin Fields, J.K. Dobbins and Chase Young.

“We're a young group that has some older guys who have led the way,” he said. “It's an exciting group to watch and follow, because of the blend of young and old and transformation of Kaleb's body.”

It's worth watching Holtmann operate, too. Now in his third season, he has proved up to the task of taking good but not great talent as far as it can go. As he adds more stars-in-the-making, such as freshman guard D.J. Carton, it will be interesting to see how deep the Buckeyes can go in the NCAA Tournament.

Expectations this season are March Madness as a given, and Elite Eight at minimum? In that way, Ohio State basketball is becoming football, similar to what it was during the prime of Thad Matta's coaching career in Columbus.

“I'm a football fan. I'm kind of sad (about the Fiesta Bowl loss),” forward Andre Wesson said. “Hopefully, we can keep it going. There's definitely more talk about us, that's for sure.”

The football Buckeyes bowed out in the four-team playoff. Can the basketball Buckeyes make it to their own Final Four? Time to pay attention. It might just happen.


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