Buckeyes got on roll once players understood roles

Rob Oller

TULSA, Okla. — Name any college basketball coaching great. Wooden. Knight. Krzyzewski. Each won multiple national championships by turning stars into winners.

But none knew how to turn slow into fast or turn short into long. No amount of teaching trumps DNA. You either have incredible physical talent or you don’t.

Houston does. Unfortunately for Ohio State, the Cougars used that athletic advantage to outrun the Buckeyes 74-59 in an NCAA Tournament second-round game on Sunday night at the BOK Center.

Ending OSU’s season did not come easily for the Cougars. The No. 3 seed was stymied at times by the Buckeyes’ brand of Big Ten basketball, which is to say a slower paced game — or classically methodical, for the old-schoolers among you — that relies on sound defense to keep games close.

The Buckeyes were still within five points with 9:25 to play, but in the end genetics won. And not just genetics but talent coupled with sound technique. The Cougars moved their feet well defensively and almost always got to the right spots to stymie the Buckeyes.

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“Their team quickness bothered us,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “And their collective athleticism bothered us a little bit.”

The speed differential showed up in the statistics. Houston outscored OSU 34-12 in the paint, led 16-7 in fast-break points and had 12 steals to the Buckeyes’ four. The Cougars also forced 14 turnovers and held OSU without a field goal for an 8:17 stretch of the second half.

Still, until the last five minutes, when Houston’s tempo finally tired Ohio State into submission, the Buckeyes kept things closer than their No. 11-seed would have suggested. And after sweating out a tournament bid last Sunday, they won one NCAA game and competed to the end in another. The gang that sometimes struggled to shoot straight this season finished on a program uptick, Sunday’s loss notwithstanding.

“Nobody expected us to be here. Everybody thought this was going to be a down year for us, thought it was an NIT team or not in a tournament at all,” said graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods, who elevated his play in OSU’s two tournament games. “With the young group we had … I thought we proved a lot of people wrong. We set the standard and now these guys get to take over and prove everybody wrong and make a run next year.”

Ohio State surprised early in the season (12-1 through December) and late (defeating No. 6 Iowa State on Friday in the first round and taking Houston to the brink). Sure, some of the middle was a muddled mess – a five-game losing streak was the longest since OSU lost 17 in 1997-98 -- but this team did not embarrass itself in the Big Dance, when the world was watching.

And while it ended too early for the players, it also ended with some retribution, as senior point guard C.J. Jackson shook off recent shooting woes to lead OSU with 18 points and committed only one turnover.

“Shooting the ball the last couple games I was disappointed in myself, but I had to just continue being who I am and who I have been all season,” Jackson said.

The question becomes how did the Buckeyes buck up after losing three straight games to finish the regular season?

Well, sometimes the most valuable assets are only found beneath the surface.

Take Tulsa, for instance. Dubbed “Oil Capital of the World” in 1927, the black gold that gushed up from under the prairie created millionaires who built breathtaking art deco buildings that demonstrated their wealth.

Given how Tulsa’s affluence lay hidden until oil was found in 1901, it makes some historical sense that the Buckeyes would play their first two NCAA games in this former frontier town.

Over the past two weeks, Ohio State’s fortunes improved dramatically as it found its own buried treasure. It took awhile to locate the resource – a stress fracture injury to Kyle Young, the three-game suspension of Kaleb Wesson and freshmen foibles all contributed to the delay – but the Buckeyes unearthed a belief built on commitment to the team-first system propagated by Holtmann.

The success of Holtmann’s system, and really most systems, depends on each player buying into a specific role, even if it might not be the one they would choose. As Ohio State breezed through December, sticking to assigned roles came easily. But as Big Ten play began, losses mounted and the younger players began to rely on instinct over instruction.

“It’s about doing whatever the team needs,” freshman guard Duane Washington Jr. said in the lead-up to Sunday’s game. “If there is any type of selfish attitude or you have selfish-minded guys, you’re ultimately hurting yourself.”

But Ohio State’s mid-to-late season issues went beyond freshmen follies. Woods practically disappeared as a scorer and Wesson was up-and-down as he fought foul trouble.

“There definitely was a point where we all thought we weren’t doing that really well,” senior Joey Lane said of sticking to the role-playing script.

It was not until desperation set in, and missing the NCAA Tournament became a real possibility, that players re-aligned to their roles and became especially connected.

“Sometimes in kids’ minds (roles) need to be validated by them seeing the success in that,” Holtmann said, adding that success breeds brotherhood. “My college coach used to call it “teamness.”

The Buckeyes finally dug it out. It ended too soon, but it’s hard to defeat DNA.

“I’m incredibly proud of this team, maybe as much as any team I’ve coached,” Holtmann said. “We’ve had our rough days but to be one of the final 32 teams standing, and I thought we competed tonight really well. We just couldn’t quite get it in the second half to where we needed.”

It was the second one-and-done NCAA Tournament experience for the Buckeyes under Holtmann, but the loss to Gonzaga in the second round last season may have allowed Ohio State to reach the tourney this year.

“Why are we sitting here today, I would say it’s because of the guys who were sitting in last year’s locker room against Gonzaga,” Holtmann said. “The improvement they made and character they showed — and our freshmen were tremendous — but if we’re going to continue to move forward, it’s going to be because those guys in that locker room (remember how this stings).”

I’m not one who thinks the Buckeyes overachieved this season. The media picked them to finish eighth in the Big Ten, which they did. I thought entering the season they were a bubble team, and essentially they were. They upset Iowa State in the tournament, but I attribute that to Holtmann’s strength in game preparation as much as anything.

That said, this bunch knuckled down when the season could have gone sideways, defeating Indiana in the first round of the Big Ten tournament to secure an NCAA bid and playing hard, especially defensively, even as the offense struggled.

Ohio State wasn’t the fastest team. Wasn’t the most talented team. Wasn’t the best at much of anything. But they advanced two games into March Madness, which in the big picture was better than most.


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