Jamari Wheeler wields aggression better in second half, leads Ohio State to Minnesota win
Aggression proved to be a double-edged sword for Jamari Wheeler and his Ohio State teammates on Tuesday night.
Playing against a Minnesota team bent on slowing the tempo, taking the No. 18 Buckeyes out of rhythm and generally deflating the basketballs inside Value City Arena, Wheeler tried to speed things up in the opening minutes of the game. Instead, the fifth-year guard picked up two fouls in the first 2:20, the Buckeyes committed eight turnovers and limped to halftime facing a 25-23 deficit.
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Recharged and armed with a slightly altered game plan (in short: play with some semblance of rhythm) in the second half, Wheeler took a 3-pointer with three seconds left on the shot clock on the opening possession. He shot it with confidence, it found the bottom of the net and Ohio State reclaimed a lead it wouldn’t surrender on the way to a 70-45 win.
“We needed that a lot,” Wheeler said of his first shot out of halftime. “The first half was one of the worst first halves we played all season. We needed some spark to get us going. That’s the spark we needed.”
Wheeler didn’t stop there, and neither did the Buckeyes. Eleven of his 13 points came during the second half. Nine of them came on three 3-pointers Wheeler hit during the first nine minutes of the half, a span that saw Ohio State go from a two-point deficit to a 47-34 lead.
Minnesota coach Ben Johnson said the Gophers were daring Wheeler, who entered the game shooting 32.4% (12 for 37) from 3-point range in Big Ten play, to beat them from the perimeter. That was fine by Wheeler, who is now 8-for-14 (57.1%) in his past four games.
“I love when they do that,” Wheeler said of the Gophers playing off of him. “Easy points for me. If teams are backing off, I’ll take it.”
Ohio State outscored Minnesota 47-20 during the second half after posting 23 points during the first. It was the lowest-scoring performance for a first half this season for the Buckeyes, and for a third straight game some early foul trouble to Wheeler played a role.
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Wheeler’s first foul came 65 seconds into the game, and his second followed at the 17:40 mark and sent him to the bench for a while.
“He’s got to manage that aggressiveness with a little bit smarter plays,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “The second foul wasn’t smart. He’s got to balance that. He’s got to take some chances, because that’s who he is and I don’t want to prevent him from doing that. We’ve tried to stress being a little more solid in areas off the ball.”
In Saturday’s win at Michigan, Wheeler picked up his second foul with 7:42 left in the first half. At Rutgers in Ohio State's previous game, his second foul came with 15:11 to play.
Without Wheeler on the floor, the Buckeyes lose their best perimeter and on-ball defender. Recently, Holtmann has shown Wheeler and his teammates clips of the 2017-18 and 2019-20 Buckeyes, teams that finished among the top 20 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com.
Those teams had a defensive connectedness, and Holtmann is charging Wheeler with tying his teammates together at that end in addition to his on-ball abilities.
"We need Jamari to continue to lead the way there," Holtmann said.
Wheeler said Holtmann told him to stay ready against Minnesota when he subbed out after his second foul because he’d be returning later that half. Holtmann doesn’t believe in auto-benching players who pick up two first-half fouls, and against Minnesota Wheeler returned to the game with 11:01 remaining.
“I was hard on myself because I did it (against Rutgers),” Wheeler said of sitting and watching the Ohio State offense struggle against the Gophers. “Knowing I’ve got to be smarter than that. I didn’t want to take away from my aggressiveness on the defensive end. That’s what I’ve got to do. I’ve got to adjust to how they’re calling it early.”
That same aggression that sent him to the bench during the first half manifested itself in a much more positive way after halftime. Johnson said he wasn’t surprised to see that response from the fifth-year guard.
“He probably did that because he plays with that energy, that spirit,” the Minnesota coach said. “When you do that, the basketball gods reward you. You’re still engaged and in the game and that’s that winning mentality.”
By the end, that much was apparent. And going forward, that will be key for Wheeler as the Buckeyes try to chase down a shot at a championship.