Postgame blog: Kaleb Wesson and another blowout win for Ohio State in Big Ten opener
There were two things worth talking about following Ohio State's conference opener against Penn State, and they were joined at the hip.
One was the hype. With a 106-74 win against the Nittany Lions, the No. 6 Buckeyes improved to 9-0 and figure to earn first-place votes in Monday's Associated Press poll following another blowout win. And powering that blowout was a breakout performance from junior center Kaleb Wesson, who scored a season-high 28 points and added 10 rebounds for his third double-double of the year.
The wins just keep coming. Although Penn State became the first team to eclipse 57 points and to shoot better than 37.5 percent from the floor against the Buckeyes, it still added up to a 32-point loss that only improved Ohio State's nation-leading margin of victory at plus-25.5 points per game.
This one will have time to stew and simmer a little bit. The Buckeyes will be off for eight days while going through final exams before going to Minnesota on Dec. 15 for their second road game of the season. A challenging December will resume in earnest from that point, and there will be more lessons to be learned from the adversity that certainly lies ahead.
For another game, though, Ohio State took a well-regarded team to the woodshed. Wesson led the way with his most all-around effective performance of the season, one that looked like what the junior had been saying was still on the horizon as the Buckeyes rode a balanced attack through their first eight games.
I asked him if a performance like this was what he was talking about when saying there was more to his game this year than what we'd seen so far.
“Yeah, if that's what you guys want to call it,” he said with a smile. “Yeah, I hit some shots today. My teammates found me in the right spot. It made for easy basketball.”
He again got help. Brother Andre, a senior, sat to his left during postgame interviews after scoring 15 points. Sophomores Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington Jr. each had 14, and like the younger Wesson each had four three-pointers.
As a team, Ohio State was 14 of 26 from three. It was 12 for 18 during the second half and hit seven of its first nine, many of which were pretty good looks provided by the offensive game plan against the Nittany Lions.
“It's the game plan we were going in with, drive-and-kick basketball,” Andre Wesson said. “We know they extend out into the passing lanes and that driving lanes would be open with them collapsing everything that we could get in the lane and spray it out.”
This day belonged to Kaleb Wesson, however. In four prior matchups against Penn State and senior center Mike Watkins, he had scored a total of 28 points and never topped 10 as the Buckeyes went 1-3 in those games.
This is a new season and a new Wesson.
“Mike Watkins has been playing like a pro,” Penn State coach Pat Chambers said. “He's been playing great defense. Today wasn't his best day, and it's not just on him. It's on the guys that are pressuring the ball, the guys that are loading to the ball. It takes five guys out there to be on the same page. I thought Mike could've handled him one-on-one. I really did, and obviously he did a good job – not great, because he had 28 points – but he had four threes.”
This was the manifestation of the physical transformation Wesson put into the offseason, when he shed roughly 40 pounds. He didn't back down from the physical challenge Watkins presents.
“Watkins is a tremendous player and really talented and an ability to block shots,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “He's playing as well as he's ever played. I don't think Kaleb would say he was physically intimidated as much as a young guy playing against a big body like that. It's all a credit to Kaleb. He continues to round his game and add to his game.
“I get asked a ton of questions, how many threes are you going to let him shoot, coach? He's pretty good at shooting the ball and he's a mismatch when he can do it as effectively as he was, so that's a big part of his game he's added. Defensively he was able to defend Watkins some one-on-one, which was a factor. Watkins is a really good player.”
The teams will face each other again in State College on Jan. 18.
“I look forward to competing against them again after January,” Chambers said.
This game provided more evidence on which players Holtmann is willing to trust in key situations to this point of the season.
Seven Buckeyes played at least 20 minutes, led by Andre Wesson at 30:47 off the bench. Sophomore Justin Ahrens was on the court for the final 2.8 seconds of the first half as insurance against classmate Luther Muhammad picking up a silly third personal foul and did not reappear until 3:30 remained in the game and Ohio State led 99-64.
Freshman Alonzo Gaffney, too, checked in with 3:30 left for his only playing time of the afternoon. Freshman Ibrahima Diallo, who did not travel to North Carolina due to strep throat, was in uniform but did not play.
E.J. Liddell, as essentially Ohio State's eighth man on a night when Kaleb Wesson was dominating, only played 10:49. After scoring a career-high 12 points against the Tar Heels, he had five points on 1-of-3 shooting against the Nittany Lions.
Holtmann took offense at the suggestion in a question that Penn State was a lesser opponent than the No. 7 North Carolina team the Buckeyes faced Wednesday night.
“Listen, I don't know that I'd agree with that,” he said. “I think we made our guys aware of that. I think the marquee of the name was different, but Penn State was playing as well as anybody we've played all year with all due respect. We had the upmost respect for them. They beat us three times in the last two years. I think that probably helped with the alert and urgency of our team. I think they're a bona fide NCAA Tournament team and the challenge for us was to turn the page quickly from North Carolina and that requires maturity.”
“I was up half the night working up what play I was going to draw up to win the game, that's how confident I was and belief I had in this group that we were going to come in here and do it. We were a single-digit game around the 12-13 minute mark and the wheels came off. I can't live in that space because I can't let Ohio State beat me twice. We've got Maryland, another top-5 team, (next).” — Chambers