After stormy January, OSU's skies brighter

Michael Arace
Ohio State's C.J. Jackson steals the ball from Ron Harper Jr. of Rutgers. [Kyle Robertson]

There are nights when Ohio State center Kaleb Wesson finds foul trouble and coach Chris Holtmann just can’t keep the big man on the floor. Those are the nights when Wesson looks like he’d be a premier sixth man. Bring him off the bench. Protect his minutes. Let him change the momentum of games.

And then there was Saturday, when Wesson made it to halftime with zero fouls and 21 points, and the game belonged to Ohio State from tipoff to final horn.

Wesson finished with 27 points, five assists and four rebounds to propel the Buckeyes to a 76-62 victory over Rutgers at Value City Arena. The announced crowd in Geiger’s Cavern was 14,961. These fans were treated to a game for which they have been pining: Wesson played without limitation, the Buckeyes took care of the ball — they had just six turnovers — and they shot 46 percent from three-point range.

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“It was a complete game for us, in a lot of ways,” Holtmann said.

They needed it after a hellish January.

The Buckeyes (14-7, 4-6) had one loss at the start of the calendar year. They proceeded to lose five in a row, careen out of the national rankings and, probably, out of contention for the Big Ten title.

The skid started when a home game against Michigan State got away from them on Jan. 5. It took its full grip four days later when they suffered a confidence-rattling, 64-61 loss at the Rutgers Athletic Center.

On that midweek night in Rutgers Athletic Center — "The Rack" as that gym is phonetically and famously known in North Jersey — Rutgers used its size to get Wesson in foul trouble and pushed the Buckeyes to the perimeter. Ohio State shot 36 percent from the field, 31 percent from the three-point line and committed 13 turnovers. They went scoreless over the last 2:37.

A template for beating the Buckeyes emerged. They don’t look to push the ball much, maybe because they’re not very good in transition. Their half-court game can be blunted by frustrating Wesson. They will turn over the ball. Their outside shooters vary in consistency, so force them to beat you from the outside. To that end, throw a zone defense at them and make them shoot over it.

On Tuesday in Ann Arbor, the Buckeyes shot 36.5 percent from the floor, 23.8 percent from three-point range, turned the ball over 19 times and lost 65-49 to Michigan. So ended January, with six losses in seven games.

They needed what they got against Scarlet Knights (11-10, 4-7), who’d won their previous three.

“Our defense needs to be better in certain areas,” Holtmann said. “But I thought our shot-making can cover up for some things. We made 13 threes. … And the quality of our shots was as good as it has been.”

Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell is rebuilding. His team is big and long and hard-nosed. It is also young — with four freshmen and two sophomores drawing big minutes. They knew they were in trouble early in the first half, when Wesson made a couple of threes to create a matchup nightmare for Pikiell’s bigs.

Pikiell plays a core man-to-man, but he went to a zone and a three-quarter-court press midway through the first half, when Rutgers trailed by nine. The Scarlet Knights cut Ohio State’s lead to four. Here we go again? No. Wesson softened up the zone with some deft work in the low block, open shooters were isolated — and C.J. Jackson, Luther Muhammad and Keyshawn Woods made their three-pointers.

Everyone took care of the ball. Also: Muhammad put the clamps on Rutgers point guard Geo Baker, which was big.

The Buckeyes will take this confidence boost into a stretch against some of the weakest teams in the league — home against Penn State, at Indiana, home against Illinois. Maybe February will continue to smile on them.


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