Ohio State notebook: Waiting on negative results before an unparalleled season opener
After a 261-day layoff, the fate of the start of the 2020-21 season wasn’t known until an 8:30 a.m. text message the day of the game.
It was Wednesday, and No. 23 Ohio State was hoping to host Illinois State later that afternoon in front of no fans at Value City Arena. In order for the game to take place, both teams and their traveling parties would have to test negative for COVID-19 on Tuesday and again the morning of the game in order for it to be played.
So about 5½ hours before the scheduled tip, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said he got the official word that all the tests were negative and the Buckeyes would finally get to play somebody else.
What transpired was a 94-67 win against the Redbirds in a season opener unlike any other in program history as the Buckeyes bolted out to a 22-0 lead, led by as many as 37 and did it all inside an empty, 19,000-seat arena.
“Really different,” Holtmann said of the experience. “We tried to prepare for it as much as you can. I think the scrimmages that we had (here) gave us a little bit of a feel. We had a dry run with the background noise. I don’t think anything full prepares you for what it’s going to feel like in the midst of a game. We were just really, really excited about being out there together.”
There was piped-in crowd noise, but it was minimal. Pregame music played as usual, but the athletic band, cheerleaders and Brutus Buckeye were all absent. After the final whistle, Ohio State’s players gathered in a single-file line to sing “Carmen Ohio” to a prerecorded track in the direction of a completely empty student section.
Forward Justice Sueing, who led the way with a game-high 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting in only 20 minutes, said the Buckeyes are embracing the uncertainty and weirdness that is college basketball in the midst of a pandemic.
“As long as the game says it’s on, that’s how we’re approaching it,” he said. “We’re acting as if even something goes wrong we’re going to have our game plan set and if something comes up we’ll adjust from there. If the game’s on, we’re all on the mind-set. We have to be ready for that unfortunately this year.”
Illinois State coach Dan Muller said the Redbirds had lost roughly two weeks of practice and implied that the virus had something to do with that. As a result, he wasn’t too surprised by what he saw as the game got underway and the Buckeyes built their early lead.
“I didn’t think it would be 22-0, but I knew we would take some hits,” he said. “We got some good looks. Nerves showed. Their physicality, their toughness level and experience showed up early and throughout the game. We didn’t execute well.”
Sueing and sophomore E.J. Liddell had a lot to do with that in the early going. Liddell scored the first five points of the game and Sueing added the next five, forcing Illinois State to call a timeout only 2:29 into the season and the Ohio State lead into double figures.
It didn’t work. Duane Washington Jr. splashed a three-pointer from the left corner, freshman Zed Key scored his first career points on a pair of free throws, Sueing scored on another lay-in, Key threw down a dunk and freshman Gene Brown III hit a three-pointer on his first career shot to cap the 22-0 outburst.
“It just felt like we were released, let the dogs out the cage,” Liddell said. “We’ve been practicing hard against each other every day. It just felt good to be out there again.”
Sueing had 19 points and 8 rebounds. Liddell had 16 points, one shy of his career high, Key and Washington each had 12 points and starting point guard CJ Walker had 10 points. Of the 13 players to see game action for the Buckeyes, 11 of them scored at least one point.
Illinois State hails from a strong conference, but the Missouri Valley isn’t the same as the Big Ten. The level of competition will grow from here, or at least once the Buckeyes get through their first four scheduled games that are all against low-to-mid-major opponents, but Holtmann said it was a performance his team can build from.
“I felt like when we had done some scrimmages together that there were really good moments where we felt good about our group,” he said. “I also felt like there were other moments where we were far behind this point last year. You’re having both of those feelings going into the game.”
They did it without the boost of a home crowd, too.
“Before the game I kept emphasizing we had to bring our energy,” Liddell said. “We had to bring our own energy and I felt like the bench did a great job. It wasn’t a lot of people there to cheer.”
“I think it sets a good tone to show how good we can be,” Sueing said. “I feel like we’re just scratching the surface with this one. Obviously it’s going to pick up as the season continues. I’m just looking forward to continuing to work with my guys.”
The margin of victory allowed Holtmann to empty his bench and get minutes for everyone available.
Key was the first substitution off the bench. Junior Justin Ahrens was second, followed by Brown. The Buckeyes wound re-insert some starters into the lineup before Bucknell transfer Jimmy Sotos and fourth-year forward Musa Jallow entered the game together.
Sophomore center Ibrahima Diallo was the final scholarship player to see game action when he checked in with 14:08 to play, and the team’s two walk-ons checked in for the final moments.
“We were able to extend the rotation a little bit,” Holtmann said. “Whether it was a close game or not, we were going to play a pretty extensive rotation. Maybe 11 guys. We need to see what we’re capable of and what some of our guys are capable of and more than anything we need film to be able to come back and make corrections.”
Jallow back in action
After missing the entirety of the 2019-20 season and being forced to take a medical redshirt, fourth-year junior guard/forward Musa Jallow played 13 minutes off the bench in the win. Jallow finished with three rebounds, two turnovers, one foul and no points while going 0 for 4 from the floor and 0 for 2 from three-point range.
He was clearly rusty, but Holtmann said it was good to see Jallow on the court after his ankle surgeries last season.
“For Musa, you saw some rustiness today with him that is natural from not playing for a while,” Holtmann said. “He gave great effort. It was great to see him get extended minutes. We’ll need to continue to see that from him. He’s another big, versatile wing. Defensively he’s got to be tremendous for us with his versatility, but I’m excited about seeing what he can be as he shakes off some of that rust.”
*Ohio State has now won 17 straight season openers. The last loss to open a season came Nov. 21, 2003, when the Buckeyes began with a 76-65 loss at San Francisco.
*The last time the Buckeyes lost a game that was both the season and home opener, it was a 59-57 loss to Notre Dame on Nov. 16, 1999, in a game that was part of the Preseason NIT.
*Illinois State is now 7-27 against current members of the Big Ten. Three of those wins have come against Northwestern.
*The game is part of a three-team multi-team event that includes UMass-Lowell. Illinois State will play the River Hawks on Saturday, and then UMass-Lowell will turn around and play Ohio State on Sunday. A final game will be played as part of the event between Ohio State and Cleveland State on Dec. 13, which is the 27th and final game to be added to Ohio State’s roster.
New kid in town
The Buckeyes had a surprise addition to the roster that wasn’t announced until shortly before tip-off. When Utah State graduate transfer Abel Porter had his career ended due to a genetic heart condition, the Buckeyes cast a wide net to try and bring in some reinforcements as Bucknell transfer Jimmy Sotos awaited his waiver for immediate eligibility.
They found Jansen Davidson, a fourth-year guard who had been playing on Ohio State’s club team. He wears No. 40, he made his debut with 3:23 to play and wound up going 3 for 4 from the free-throw line for his first career points.
“We brought a couple guys in (from the club team and) put them through workouts,” Holtmann said. “Felt like Jansen was physically the most ready to do that. We’re excited about adding him to the roster. He’s a physical, tough kid. He’s went from club team to ESPN in a matter of a month and a half, so it’s great for that kid.”
“It was a good first start for our guys. Obviously they came out and missed a few shots that I think they’ve probably made, at least ones we’ve seen on film. Overall proud of our guys’ effort today. I thought we had good energy. Guys were anxious and ready to play and I give our seniors a lot of credit for that, but we had a lot of contributions from a lot of players. Feel good about it and we’ll have a great Thanksgiving meal together and get back to work.” – Holtmann