Ohio State turns up defense with Luther Muhammad, Duane Washington Jr. in UMass Lowell win
There was reason for a modicum of concern as No. 18 Ohio State prepared to host UMass Lowell on Sunday afternoon.
A few days prior, the Buckeyes had lost the services of senior Andre Wesson, a player with aspirations of proving himself among the Big Ten’s elite perimeter defenders. The eye injury suffered in Wednesday’s opening win against Cincinnati overshadowed the shut-down job he performed on Bearcats go-to guy Jarron Cumberland, leading coach Chris Holtmann to later lament that the senior ties his team’s defense together unlike few players he’s ever coached.
Then on Friday night, the River Hawks earned their first win of the season with a record-breaking night at Long Island University. Fifth-year senior Christian Lutete, who had averaged 18.7 points a season ago, went off for a program-record 51 points on 16-of-25 shooting that included a 7-for-12 performance from behind the three-point line.
So, yeah, UMass Lowell brought some firepower to Value City Arena. And without Wesson’s services, the Buckeyes were still having none of it.
Sophomore guard Luther Muhammad drew the primary responsibilities for Lutete, and he would finish with nine points on 4-of-12 shooting. Five of those nine points came in the last 6:29, with the game decided.
Yes, fatigue clearly played a factor. But Muhammad’s performance, as part of his team’s overall defensive effort, adds a little bit more evidence in the early going that this might be a halfway decent Ohio State defense.
“Pretty good,” Holtmann said when asked about his team’s defense through two games. “I think they’ve taken the game plan that we’ve went into each game with and we’ve had to adapt a little bit. I thought our guys have had a good attention to detail. Their effort has been good. I was disappointed with our defensive rebounding in the prior game. I thought we were a little more intentional about that. I think we have to be good defensively. That’s got to be a constant for us but I’ve been fairly pleased.”
In wins against Cincinnati and UMass Lowell, the Buckeyes are allowing teams to shoot a combined 33.1 percent (39 for 118) from the floor and 20.5 percent (9 for 44) from three-point range while committing 26 turnovers against 20 assists.
Without Wesson, Holtmann turned to sophomore Duane Washington Jr. to replace him in the starting lineup. It gave the Buckeyes a three-guard look with junior CJ Walker, Muhammad and Washington, and it brought a player in Washington who hasn’t particularly been known for his defensive prowess early in his Ohio State career.
Holtmann credited Muhammad’s defense of Lutete and Washington’s defense of Obadiah Noel – who had 21 in Friday’s win – for helping keep the visitors in check.
“I think (Luther) really took the assignment, he and Duane, with (Lutete) and (Noel), they understood,” Holtmann said. “We showed them a lot of those clips. They understood how capable (Lutete) was and I thought they took great ownership of that. It was critical. You’ve got to make a guy like that earn it. If he gets into a rhythm early, it can be a long night.”
At 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Washington showed improved defensive abilities despite being utilized a little bit out of position.
“Growing,” Holtmann said when asked about the sophomore’s defensive development. “Getting better. He’s capable because he’s got pretty good feet and decent length. He’s kind of undersized right now with where we’re playing him on the wing. With any guy it’s about his want-to, and his want-to is pretty good right now.”
As for playing without his brother in the lineup, junior center Kaleb Wesson said, “It was different. He gets bumps and bruises. He’s a tough guy, but he’ll be back here soon and we’re going to be right back on track.”
Snapping the cold streak
An uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu filtered through the arena through the opening minutes of Sunday’s win.
In the win against the Bearcats on Wednesday, it took the Buckeyes until 12:20 of the first half before they scored their first points. The final tally was 11 straight fruitless possessions including five turnovers, eight missed field goals and three missed free throws.
Sunday afternoon, the Buckeyes got underway with a pair of missed Kaleb Wesson free throws 20 seconds into the game. Their first points didn’t come until the 16:31 mark when CJ Walker, seemingly having seen enough, drove the basket and finished at the rim to make it a 6-2 UMass Lowell lead.
Until then, Ohio State had missed four field goals in addition to those two free throws.
“At first I think we were playing a little too ahead of ourselves, not really following what the game plan was that coach put in for us,” freshman guard D.J. Carton said. “Once we got back, came together as a team and started going through the game plan I felt like baskets started coming easier for us.”
The offense would heat up from there, but the free-throw effort would take more time. The Buckeyes missed their first seven free throws. When Wesson hit a pair with 9:37 left, he received a Bronx cheer from the 11,632 in attendance.
“I don’t think that we’re an offensive juggernaut right now by any stretch,” Holtmann said. “I’m Mr. Obvious here, but we’re just not there yet. I’d like to say we are, but we’re not. I think we’re going to have scoring droughts. The free throws, I take a lot of blame for that. We have to be more deliberate about our practice for free throws.”
In his first official Ohio State action, freshman Alonzo Gaffney came off the bench and finished with 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting and added eight rebounds. He sunk the first shot of his career, a three-pointer from the left corner, and flashed the athleticism that made him a top-50 national recruit.
He also had four turnovers, two of which came on poor attempts to force the ball into the post. The afternoon was a microcosm of what the coaching staff has seen from the freshman in practice.
“He’s got to make better decisions, take better care of the ball,” Holtmann said. “We’ve noticed it for a month and a half now. A lot of freshmen go through that. We’ve got to figure out how to maybe get him in different positions or, but it’s been a little bit of an issue we’ve got to continue to work through.”
The fourth and final freshman to join the class, center Ibrahima Diallo, made his debut with six minutes left in the game and played the remainder of the game. He finished with two rebounds, one foul and two turnovers.
“That’s important,” Holtmann said of getting the duo into the game. “You don’t ever schedule a game with that in mind but you do try to put your schedule together in a way that you understand you can’t play teams like Cincinnati every night until you get into league play. We need to continue to have those guys contribute in a lot of ways and play through mistakes and coach them through mistakes and they’ve got to continue to embrace getting better.”
Allegiances on the line
UMass Lowell coach Pat Duquette has a tie to Ohio State in the form of former player Evan Ravenel. Before transferring to Ohio State, Ravenel played for Boston College while Duquette was an assistant coach.
Before the game, Ravenel wrote on Twitter that he felt conflicted about which team to root for. That made Duquette laugh.
“I love Evan as a kid and really enjoyed coaching him,” he said. “I was excited for him when he had an opportunity to come to Ohio State. I thought he was a talented player. I appreciate his support. I think Evan knows he needs to stay loyal to Ohio State, but I appreciate his support. He was a good kid. I enjoyed getting to know him. I still stay in touch with him and his family.”
When told Duquette had been asked about him after the game, Ravenel responded in a Tweet saying, “Coach Duquette is the reason I chose BC and the reason I want to be a College Basketball coach after I’m done playing. Great man and wish him nothing but success.”
“When I first got here this summer it was hard for me. I struggled in practice, had a lot of turnovers and played out of control. I kind of learned how to play watching CJ Walker run the point. He does a really good job of being poised. Every day I continued to work on that and now it’s coming naturally. I’m starting to still have my exciting plays and have a lot of energy but controlling the offense and getting it to guys who are hot and needing to score.” – Carton on his development