Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann on sweeping Michigan: ’It matters’
No matter what the chant ringing around Value City Arena insisted, the feeling was a little bit different.
After three straight meetings between the rivals had been played in Ann Arbor, Michigan, No. 23 Ohio State was putting the finishing touches on a 77-63 win against No. 19 Michigan when the sellout crowd started to jab at the Wolverines.
“Just like football!” they chanted.
They were right. Ohio State has enjoyed success unprecedented in its history against Michigan on the gridiron, but basketball wins have been at more of a premium of late. This year, though, the Buckeyes did something they hadn’t done in nine years – they swept the season series against the Wolverines.
After winning a nail-biter last month at the Crisler Center, Ohio State blew this one open with a 23-9 run to close the game. It guaranteed that the Buckeyes will finish no worse than .500 in league play this season after stumbling to a 2-6 start, and it was something coach Chris Holtmann savored afterward.
Different doesn’t imply any less satisfying.
“I’ve been here now three years,” Holtmann said. “It’s different in basketball (than in football), but it matters. It matters to everybody that cares about this place, to everybody that’s been here, it matters to our former players. It matters to our former coaches. It matters, so I’d be naïve to say it didn’t feel good.”
Ohio State’s game production staff leaned in heavily for this game. Every seat in the arena came with a scarlet T-shirt, helping to create a brighter, vibrant feel inside Value City Arena. Before the game, those in attendance were treated to a new video on the scoreboard featuring the voices of former football coaches Earle Bruce and Urban Meyer and then highlights from basketball games between the two programs.
It had Holtmann raving afterward.
“Goal No. 1 for me today was to make sure that that unbelievable highlight (video) was not the best part of the afternoon,” he said. “That video that we showed, wow, that was impressive. Gave me chills watching it. All of the incredible players we’ve had here through the years, incredible teams.”
Holtmann said he texted the video to Meyer once it was complete. After the game, he spent some time with football coach Ryan Day inside the locker room.
Although he played his final season in California, Ohio State sophomore guard Duane Washington Jr. hails from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was never offered a scholarship by the Wolverines. He made a season-high seven field goals and finished with 17 points in the win at Michigan earlier this season and then tied a career high with 20 in the rematch while hitting five of his seven three-point attempts.
Did this mean anything different to him, as a Michigan native?
“A little bit, but just approached it like every single game that we had,” he said. “Being from Michigan, it portrays that you could have a little more chip on your shoulder or something like that but I know a lot of the guys and I know a lot of the coaches so just going out there and playing it like every other game.”
The win ended a pair of lengthy streaks in the rivalry. Ohio State had lost five straight games as a ranked team against the Wolverines, and it had also lost five straight games to ranked Michigan teams. The last time any combination of those two events happened came Jan. 13, 2013, when No. 15 Ohio State beat No. 2 Michigan 56-53 at Value City.
It’s the first time Ohio State has swept the season series, which hasn’t featured multiple games every year, since it did so in 2010-11. The Buckeyes pulled off the trifecta that year, beating the Wolverines in the Big Ten tournament, too.
“It means a lot to have a crowd like that,” junior guard CJ Walker said. “The student section and all the fans were amazing. They brought a lot of energy for us. It’s March. It’s the best time for basketball. We wanted to come out with a lot of energy, and I feel like that’s what we did today. It means a lot to come out with a great win against a team like that. “
There was just one argument about the day, however, and it concerned the highlight video and was between two members of Holtmann’s staff: director of professional development Terence Dials and program assistant Andrew Dakich. Both played for the Buckeyes.
“A couple of our former players were arguing back there, Terence was upset that Dakich got a shot in there and I don’t think TD did,” Holtmann said. “They can take that up with the video department. That’s out of my control. What a great way to tip off the day there.”
For a second straight game, junior forward Kyle Young watched from the bench as he continues to recover from an ankle injury suffered one week prior in a win against No. 7 Maryland. In Thursday’s win at Nebraska, Young watched while wearing a walking boot on his right ankle and used walking crutches to move around Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Sunday, Young was still in the walking boot but without the crutches.
“Kyle is working every day with (athletic trainer Brad Watson),” Holtmann said. “He is improving. I wouldn’t want to give a percentage on how close he was today, but he is improving. It’s a little bit now like, ‘OK, do we want to wait until he’s really good to go?’ We want to get him back early, we want to get him back for the stretch run of our season where he can be healthy.”
In the first game between the teams this season, Young had 12 points and five rebounds and also had his jersey torn by Zavier Simpson in the final moment to give the Buckeyes some pivotal free throws.
“They played Nebraska without Kyle Young, so got a chance to watch them on film and see,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “They’re like us: they don’t make any excuses. Truly Kyle Young is missed, but they had other guys step up and play well for them. (E.J.) Liddell, Andre, they do it by committee.”
A couple of key talking points will be featured in separate stories here in the coming days.
First, there’s the play of Walker, who had his biggest all-around impact of the season. He scored 15 points, tied a season high with seven assists, tied a career high with six rebounds and had just one turnover while playing 36:56.
Second, this was the first game in March. Walker said he feels this team is built for this moment.
Third, this win moved the Buckeyes to 8-2 in their last 10 games and bumped them up to 20 wins on the season. It’s quite the turnaround from the January swoon that saw them lose five of six games, and the question now is whether that’s sustainable with Young on the sidelines and freshman D.J. Carton still unavailable.
And yes, Holtmann has seen what you were saying about the team in January.
“We realize plenty of people wrote us off when we were 2-6 (in the Big Ten),” he said. “Made fun of us, putting all their sarcastic tweets out there. I’ve got them all saved. All of them.”
He was joking. Probably.
Playing in his penultimate game at Value City Arena, senior Andre Wesson played a pivotal role in the Buckeyes holding a 32-29 halftime lead by scoring nine points through the first 20 minutes.
Then he delivered the shot Howard described as the back-breaker. The Wolverines had pulled even at 54-all with an 8-2 run on a Jon Teske left-handed hook shot in the paint, but the Buckeyes answered with a Walker jumper to reclaim the lead. Then, after Eli Brooks was called for an offensive foul against Kaleb Wesson, the Buckeyes worked the ball around but found no offensive openings until the ball got to Andre Wesson at the top of the circle with seconds left on the shot clock.
It banked cleanly in off the glass to push it back to a two-possession lead for the Buckeyes with 5:47 to play, and Michigan would get no closer for the remainder.
“Obviously the banked in, they were playing good defense,” Holtmann said. “Fortunately we got it up on goal. Both Wessons, I told them fellas, living right, you get both of them banked in. Both guys played really solid games. You get some of those and there will be times someone banks one against us. It can be a little bit of a back-breaker in those situations.”
When Andre let his three go, Washington and Walker said they both made immediate eye contact.
“It’s just one of those days,” Washington said.
“We both said it was good at the same time,” Walker said. “He shot it and we both said, ‘It’s good!’ at the same time and then it dropped. It’s just one of those days where the ball was falling.”
His younger brother got in the act, too, when he banked in a three of his own with 1:36 to play. That one pushed the lead to 73-60.
“Well it was painful to see, yes, but that wasn’t the only banked three,” Howard said of Andre’s shot. “Got a chance to see two to three of them. When guys are making shots like that, obviously their confidence level is extremely high, but it was a back-breaker for us.”
“I have been a part of some turnarounds from a difficult January, but I don’t think I’ve been a part of one this significant where you’ve seen such a dramatic turnaround. After the season we’ll sit down and try to figure out why exactly that is. I give credit to our players on that. They’ve just owned the progress of this group and they owned some of the struggles that we had as we all had to.” – Holtmann