The Ohio State Buckeyes, in mid-January, are still defying expectations and erasing doubts.
Obviously much of the credit belongs to the unforeseen levels of dominance displayed by Big Ten Player of the Year frontrunner Keita Bates-Diop, but the true catalyst of Buckeye success is head coach Chris Holtmann. With the victory over Northwestern on Wednesday, Holtmann became the first coach in 95 years to win his first seven Big Ten contests.
You will not hear Holtmann taking any credit, though.
“It really does not mean anything,” Holtmann said. “I think that is a reflection on the players as much as anything, I firmly believe that. We’ve got a group that obviously had a really good player returning from injury, and we’ve got a group that really likes each other.”
To hear Holtmann tell it, Bates-Diop’s presence and added built in roster chemistry are making his job easy. Yet, at this point last season, clear chemistry issues boiled under the surface and Bates-Diop represented little more than a question mark, injury or not.
This season, their stable of talent and bodies was depleted enough to force the Buckeyes to pitch a Musa Jallow reclassification. In fact, the team had even considered recruiting out of a recreation league to add depth.
Simply put, the job Holtmann has done cannot be understated. A healthy Bates-Diop certainly helps, but the patchwork lineups and clear improvement from previously regarded “lesser talent” has the Buckeyes humming with balance and versatility.
In three January contests, that balance and offensive malleability has been on full display.
Against the Michigan State Spartans, the Buckeyes feasted from the midrange, as Bates-Diop lead the way with 32 points. The Maryland Terrapins took note, hitting Ohio State with a zone and forcing them outside. The Buckeyes responded by going 17-for-29 from the three-point line. Bates-Diop once again led all scorers, pouring in 26.
Northwestern, much like Maryland, made a concentrated effort to keep Ohio State out of the mid-range and negate Bates-Diop’s bread and butter spots with a zone – it worked. The junior scored just 10 points, his second lowest total of the year, and the Buckeyes went 6-for-17 from deep.
What the Wildcats did not count on however, was the Buckeye bench, in particular Micah Potter on the offensive end and Andre Wesson defensively.
Potter last saw significant minutes way back in November, when the sophomore played 31 against Texas Southern. Entering last night, however, Potter had missed four games with an ankle injury and had averaged under eight minutes a game since November 19th. Against Northwestern, Potter exploded, finding seems in the zone and punishing the Wildcats. Potter did not miss a shot, going 5-for-5 en route to a 13-point performance, leading the way for the Buckeyes.
“I just needed one to go in. I think I started 0-for-9? Shoot,” Potter said of his early season struggles. “That’s the biggest thing for any kind of shooter, you just need to see one go in…that builds your confidence up.”
For Wesson, an injury, too, marred his early season success. In fact, an undisclosed medical condition threatened to end the sophomore forward’s basketball career, but ultimately Wesson was cleared to play before the season started. While he was working to get back into game shape, Wesson was relegated to spot minutes and sitting on the bench during important stretches.
Against Northwestern, though, Wesson was inserted into the lineup to quell the late, ongoing Wildcat run. As the game closed, and the Buckeyes sealed the victory, he remained on the floor. The decision was atypical, but a resounding success.
According to Adam Jardy of the Columbus Dispatch, “I think it says a lot about how the coaches view [Wesson], and that he’s a top-5 defender on this team.” A 6-foot-6, 220-pound wing, Wesson possesses the build to absorb physicality in the post, as well as the athleticism to hang with quicker players on the perimeter.
The Buckeyes currently sit atop the Big Ten standings alongside the Purdue Boilermakers, both 7-0 in conference play. Ohio State will look to extend their six-game winning streak on Saturday, as they take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Madison Square Garden.