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The keys to success this Ohio State basketball season? Sacrifice and maturity, not talent

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Guard CJ Walker starts a celebration dance after Ohio State beat Illinois on March 5. Walker said he's focusing on helping the Buckeyes' freshmen get ready for what likely will be a challenging season on and off the court.

The teams that experience the most success this college basketball season might have something in common.

As the sport inches its way toward a Nov. 25 start date while the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect sports at all levels of competition, the 2020-21 season could be led not necessarily by the teams that are most talented but by the ones that are the most committed.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery summed it up well during a recent video chat: “Maybe the best ability is availability,” he said.

With the official start of practice set for Wednesday, it’s a concept teams will struggle with as they attempt to play as many games as possible with the ultimate goal of a safe, complete NCAA Tournament. Getting to that point will mean skipping most or all of what is typically associated with being a high-profile student-athlete on a college campus.

That is going to take sacrifice. It will require buy-in from an entire roster. And thanks to a recent rainy night and a minor fender-bender involving freshman Zed Key, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann is convinced that his team is ready to handle the challenge.

“Fortunately it wasn’t his fault, but his car was banged up pretty good,” Holtmann said of Key's accident. “He sends a group text to his teammates, and within literally five minutes our staff guys sent me a picture. The entire team was there in support.

“I think we’ve got a group that is mature, that cares about each other, and that’s a good place to start. We’ve got a lot of questions we’ve got to answer (on the court), but I do feel pretty confident in seeing them operate.”

Testing policies have differed across the Big Ten leading into practice, although that is expected to change once the preseason officially begins and daily testing becomes the norm. McCaffery said his players have been tested once a week, while the Buckeyes have been getting tested on Monday and Thursday mornings as the Big Ten continues to sort out its testing resources since announcing its medical partnerships and plans Sept. 30.

Iowa had multiple players test positive or COVID-19 during the summer. Ohio State has not released figures about how many of their athletes might have tested positive, but the men's basketball team has not been known to be affected by the virus thus far.

Senior forward Kyle Young said they have no reservations about trying to get a season started in the midst of a pandemic.

“We trust in our medical team and everyone around us to keep us safe,” he said. “All our teammates have been doing the right things on and off the court. We know each guy is going to do what he can to have a season.”

Ohio State forward Kyle Young said he well aware of the sacrifices that he and his teammates must make to help ensure that COVID-19 doesn't ruin their season.

Young said the word “sacrifice” has been especially emphasized to the players since their return to campus during the summer.

“Maturity comes with that, knowing you can’t go to parties or be out and about with a lot of people or on campus around a lot of people,” he said. “We’ve got to make sacrifices so we can have a season.”

The Buckeyes are helped in that regard by their relative age. Of the 14 players on the roster, half of them are in their fourth season or more and all but four have played at least two full seasons of college basketball. Last year, eight of the 14 players were in their first or second seasons and only three were in their fourth years.

One of those three, Florida State transfer CJ Walker, is now in his fifth and final season. While he’ll be giving up things that would normally accompany a senior year, Walker said he’s focused on helping freshmen Gene Brown and Key navigate their way through the temptations.

“That sacrifice is really big,” Walker said of what the freshman are enduring. “I want to play, and I’m going to sacrifice everything to be able to play and I want to give that example to my teammates as well so we can have a season.”

Even with the best of plans, the likelihood exists that the team will be affected by the virus once the Big Ten unveils its protocols for positive tests and contact tracing for the sport. Walker said the players and coaches are emphasizing the importance of wearing masks, using hand sanitizer and social distancing.

“We know there are certain things you can do to prevent the risk of getting COVID, but you can’t completely prevent the risk,” Holtmann said. “I do believe that after seeing our guys day to day here for the last 10 weeks, I like our maturity.”

It might be as much the key to a successful season as anything.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy