Kyle Young's career night, Andre Wesson's injury and Ohio State outlasting Cincinnati
So this is what a fully healthy Kyle Young can provide.
Chris Holtmann hadn’t been at Ohio State for more than a few weeks when he sat at a table inside Value City Arena for an interview session with a handful of local reporters. It was the summer of 2017 and the new coach was in the process of stapling together his first roster, a process that included bringing along a native Ohioan in Young who had initially committed to play for him at Butler.
At the time, Young was the highest-rated recruit to ever sign for Holtmann. As he looked at his potential impact with the Buckeyes, Holtmann described him as a four-year player that the fans would eventually fall in love with due to his hard-nosed style and high effort level.
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It’s been on display when his body has allowed throughout his first two years in the program, but it was in full effect for Wednesday night’s season opener against Cincinnati. In a game that saw the Buckeyes go nearly eight minutes before scoring their first field goal before ultimately emerging with a 64-56 win, Young was the only offensive option early and often.
When Cincinnati took a 26-19 lead into the half, it’s grisly to imagine what the score would have been if not for Young’s 10 points and eight rebounds. The latter total was already a career high, and his final totals of 14 points and 13 rebounds were both career-high totals.
And he mostly did it without being the focal point of the offense. Young’s contributions come on effort plays, offensive put-backs and dunks.
“Effort is a big thing,” Young said after the game. “Coach tries to preach, keep high energy. I’ve got to be a guy in there that’s doing those types of things, getting extra rebounds. Another thing is trusting these guys. We’re going to play well together and stuff was just going in.”
At the break, Buckeyes not named Young were a combined 4 for 23 (17.4 percent) from the floor. He was 5 for 6 including the first points of the season that came on a dunk at 12:20 of the first half. To that point, the Buckeyes had missed eight field goals and three free throws while committing five turnovers.
The second half would be a different story for the Buckeyes, who shot 55.0 percent from the floor and scored 45 points to turn a seven-point halftime deficit into a somewhat comfortable eight-point win. Four of Young’s five second-half rebounds were on the defensive end.
“He was terrific,” Holtmann said. “He was good in this game too last year. This is his kind of a game, where he could really impact it, but he’s healthy and I think that really matters with a guy who his legs are so important to him.”
Last season, Young missed four games with a stress fracture in his lower right leg. When he returned, his minutes were limited and he was essentially held out of practice for the remainder of the season to keep him on the court in games.
In last year’s season opener at Cincinnati, Young had 10 points and eight rebounds while only taking two field goals. He hit both of them and was 6 for 7 from the free-throw line.
“Kyle’s got one thing on his mind when he plays, and that is Ohio State winning,” Holtmann said. “That’s the only thing that matters to him. That’s true of all of our guys, but I think you see particularly in a game against an in-state rival that means something to him.”
Junior center Kaleb Wesson, who finished with eight points, 11 rebounds and a game-high nine fouls drawn, said what the 13,845 fans in attendance saw in person was what the Buckeyes have seen all summer since Young’s return.
“I was seeing Kyle,” he said. “That’s the same Kyle we’ve been seeing all summer leading up to the game. High energy guy who’s going to go out there and do the dirty work for you. That’s what we expect out of KY and that’s what he gives us.”
The most-anticipated Ohio State season in years could not have gotten off to a more brutal start. The Buckeyes came up fruitless on their first 11 possessions, much to the consternation of a partisan crowd that looked on with what felt an equal mix of befuddlement and horror.
Surely it couldn’t stay this bad, right?
On the first offensive possession of the game, CJ Walkre turned the ball over on a charge taken by Chris McNeal. Two possessions later, it was a turnover on an inbounds pass from underneath the Ohio State basket.
Young’s lone miss of the night came with Cincinnati ahead 5-0 when he missed a point-blank shot at the rim. Duane Washington Jr. tried to inject himself into the action but had a misguided drive to the rim easily rejected. Young missed a pair of free throws six minutes into the game, and freshman D.J. Carton missed the front end of a one-and-one at 12:41.
“We were wound pretty tight,” Holtmann said. “A lot of new guys or guys just first-game stuff. You’re playing at home. I just thought we were wound really tight. I sense it all day but you try to address that as much as possible.”
The turnover issues would improve. After committing five in the first 7:01, they would have 10 the rest of the way. And even though the results weren’t there for a while, the Buckeyes liked some of the shots they were getting.
“There was a lid on it,” Wesson said. “Sometimes there’s a lid on the hoop. You take good shots and they just don’t fall. Staying with the offense is something that we preach when we’re in our tight huddles and even when coach is in there. Trust the offense and make sure we’re getting to the rim.”
For point of reference: while it was bad, the Buckeyes were worse during the first half on two occasions last season. After scoring only 17 points during the first half of an ugly road loss to Northwestern, Ohio State bottomed out with 16 the following game at home against Wisconsin.
The Buckeyes lost both of those games. They didn’t lose this one.
“It’s tough when you have a young team and you don’t score for seven minutes to open the game because everybody gets a little tighter and I felt like that at the free-throw line,” Holtmann said. “I think it took us having a wide-open dunk to get our first points.”
“It took a little while, but it did get pretty loud in there when we got that first bucket,” Young said. “I think we needed a little energy swing. I don’t know if that was it, but we started getting things going, started getting a little more offense going and we started playing basketball like we know how.”
Andre Wesson hurt
The Buckeyes lost a key part of their plan late in the second half. With 5:57 to play, senior forward Andre Wesson took an inadvertent shot to the face from Walker and went down hard near the Ohio State free-throw line.
He was eventually helped to his feet and walked off the court under his own power, but he went straight to the locker room and did not return.
“Andre’s being evaluated right now,” Holtmann said after the game. “I don’t want to get into the specifics but he took a significant hit. We’ll see. He’s being evaluated right now and I’m going to head over and see him here in a minute.”
He finished with seven points and two rebounds in 31:43 while hounding Cincinnati lynchpin Jarron Cumberland for much of the game. Cumberland, the American Athletic Conference’s preseason player of the year, was held to 13 points on 4-of-13 shooting.
Scrap it all
Two different narratives emerged about what the Buckeyes tried to change offensively for the second half. Against a Cincinnati team that played a more physical defense than he said he expected, Holtmann said the Buckeyes basically threw the plan away and made sweeping changes.
“In the first half we could not run our offense so much so we basically scrapped our offense at halftime and ran a variation of something we really haven’t run all year and I thought our guys were great,” the coach said. “They just played off instincts and really responded.”
Much of it involved having the new-look Wesson playing at the top of the circle, setting ball screens and forcing Cincinnati to extend its defense. That helped create some more space for the Buckeyes to attack, which they did at a much better clip than during the first half.
Bearcats coach John Brannen credited Holtmann for the adjustment.
“I thought Chris, he does an outstanding job, the adjustments they made in the second half to middle ball-screen with one of the best players in the country, throwing back to him and basically baiting our ice coverage in the middle of the floor in order to get some more movement and open space for them was effective,” he said. “We weren’t able to counter that. We lost some of our defensive tenacity that we had in the first half.”
Wesson said it wasn’t so much about what the Buckeyes were told to do but how they were told to do it.
“It really wasn’t an adjustment,” he said. “He just preached effort. It’s going to come down to a dogfight at the end of the game. He just told us that we need to put our heads down and grind it out and work and that’s the only thing we could do.”
It didn’t take long for the changes to help. The Buckeyes scored on their first five second-half possessions to take a 30-29 lead that they would never relinquish. Young drew a foul and hit two free throws, Luther Muhammad scored on a drive to the basket, Walker scored on another, Wesson hit a three-pointer and Walker drew a foul on a drive and hit two free throws.
It was, as Holtmann likes to put it, a case of players making plays.
“We settled down, for one, but we really tried to simplify things at halftime,” he said. “I just didn’t think we were putting our guys in good enough positions in the first half offensively because they were taking us out of everything that we had wanted to run going into the game. We tried to simplify it and they played off their instincts and that gave us a rhythm.”
Two of Ohio State’s four freshmen made their debuts in the win. Carton was the first substitute off the bench and received a nice ovation from the crowd when he checked in at 16:20. Liddell was the next player off the bench, giving Young a break 29 seconds later
Carton’s first career points came at 4:42 of the first half when his layup helped pull the Buckeyes within 15-13. In 12:59, Carton had four rebounds and two points at the break while Liddell saw tougher sledding.
In 4:23, he missed two shots and committed two turnovers without recording any other statistics.
“There were some rough moments there,” Holtmann said. “I think E.J.’s first 5-8 minutes were ones he’s going to reflect back on and laugh a little bit.”
The second half was a better story for both. Liddell played seven minutes and scored five points while adding a rebound. He hit three free throws and scored his first career field goal with 3:40 remaining to push the Ohio State lead back to four points at 57-53.
After halftime, Carton played 12 minutes and had seven points, one rebound and one assist. He scored five straight points for the Buckeyes, finishing a layup to make it a 46-41 lead and then hitting his first career three-pointer with 7:35 left in the game. He did have three second-half turnovers, though.
Both would play significant late minutes.
“They were locked in,” Wesson said of the freshmen. “Usually you get young guys and they’re jittery in that situation. A tight game, they’ll tighten up in that situation but our guys looked real poised out there. They collected the information well and executed on the court.”
Freshmen Alonzo Gaffney and Ibrahima Diallo did not see playing time, but Holtmann said they were both eligible to play.
“Yeah, everybody was (eligible),” he said. “The nature of the game, I was hoping to get a couple more guys in. It was hard to do it.”
“That was a good old-fashioned rock fight right there. Most physical opening game I’ve ever been a part of. Proud of this first win. Have to find a way to grow and be a lot better. I’m sure it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing to a lot of people, but I don’t really care.” – Holtmann