Rob Oller | Ohio State's 'stick with it' strategy hasn't always worked

Rob Oller
Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann watches his team during practice for the men's college basketball NCAA Tournament Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

TULSA, Okla. – Say this for the Buckeyes -- they know ugly when they see it, because they’ve seen it a lot.

You want beautiful basketball? Watch Duke out-talent people. Watch Wofford rain three-pointers on helpless defenders. Just don’t watch Ohio State. As often as not, the Buckeyes rely on a rag-tag brand of ball that mixes a little of this and a little of that, without the littles adding up to a lot of pristine play.

It happened again Friday night against Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Not pretty. But for Ohio State fans it was beautiful. The 11th-seeded Buckeyes played their best defensive game of the season and made shots when absolutely necessary to upset the No6 Cyclones 62-59 at the BOK Center.

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How best to describe the win? Unexpected, yes, but also typical. Ohio State has shown an ability to hang around in games when its offense is like college spring break -- always a lot happening but not a lot getting accomplished.

But guess what? Come NCAA Tournament time, teams like OSU that are far from perfect can benefit from their imperfection. When you have little to lose – the Buckeyes barely made the tournament in the first place – you play to win. If that means looking less than spectacular along the way, so be it.

“We’re a team right now that to win (Friday) it needed to be a certain type of game,” said coach Chris Holtmann, who ran his record in NCAA Tournament openers to 5-0; the first three at Butler and last two at Ohio State. “If it’s ugly it’s ugly.”

Not all of it was hard to watch. Except for a few lapses, Ohio State’s defense was spectacular, which it needed to be against an offense that Holtmann described as the most dangerous the Buckeyes have faced. Sophomore center Kaleb Wesson forced ISU shooters to alter shots near the basket and sophomore guard Musa Jallow continued to flex the athleticism that has taken a solid defense up a notch the past two weeks.

Credit Holtmann for designing a defense that forced ISU from its tendencies to attack the basket and pass to the perimeter for open three-pointers. The frustrated Cyclones went nearly 10 minutes the first half without making a basket.

“Our defense was as good as it’s been all year,” Holtmann said. “I told our guys if we were going to win the game we were going to need to have our most complete and best defensive effort of the year.”

Senior point guard C.J. Jackson explained that a low-scoring game was what the Buckeyes needed to win. And the only way to make that happen was to follow the protocol Holtmann laid out during practice.

“They like things free and easy and flowing. When they’re feeling good and comfortable they’re hitting shots,” Jackson said of the Cyclones. “We wanted to make them uncomfortable.”

Beyond that, Jackson shrugged off another spotty team shooting night – 5 of 20 from three-point range – as just the way it goes with this team.

 “This has been us all year,” he said. “Stick with it, stick with it. Knock down free throws and win the game.”

Except that strategy hasn’t always won games. Ohio State lost 14 times this season. What has changed is Wesson is back to being more of an offensive and defensive force (21 points, 12 rebounds) and guard Keyshawn Woods has found his second wind. Or maybe his first real one?

“Preparation is everything. Everyone has to be dialed in from the get-go,” said Woods, who scored 19. “As long as we’re all determined to guard, we get results like this.”

Next comes No. 3 Houston on Sunday, and while the Cougars looked especially formidable in their 84-55 win against No. 14 Georgia State – “As big a challenge as I’ve had coaching in this tournament,” Holtmann said – don’t count out the Buckeyes. Especially if things get ugly.


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