The Ohio State Buckeyes were supposed to struggle on the hardwood during head men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann’s first season at the helm in 2018-19. They didn’t, to say the least. Even so, they were supposed to struggle this season. Whether it was due to losing players such as Keita Bates-Diop, Jae’Sean Tate, or Kam Williams, or Ohio State’s entire five-player 2015 recruiting class — four-stars JaQuan Lyle, Daniel Giddens, Austin Grandstaff, A.J. Harris, and Mickey Mitchell — would have been seniors and all transferred from the program within two years of being on campus, the Buckeyes were without a ton of talented players this year.1
Even though they were expected to struggle this year, the scarlet and gray had a solid first two months of the season, starting 12-1, with key non-conference wins over Cincinnati, Creighton, and UCLA. Then the calendar flipped to 2019 and the Buckeyes struggled mightily in January. They finished 1-6 in the first month of the new year and seemingly couldn’t find their way in the Big Ten. With the calendar flipping to February, Ohio State also wanted to flip the switch as well, forgetting about the most recent past and looking to get back in their groove. They had to lean on two of their best players, Kaleb Wesson and Luther Muhammad. If their last two wins have proven anything, it’s that the underclassmen can be counted on and if given the opportunity, they will produce at a high level while leading the Buckeyes.
At Nebraska on January 26, Ohio State was looking to end a five-game skid against a red-shot Cornhuskers team. That’s when Muhammad stepped up with the best game of his college career so far. The true freshman is known as a lockdown defender but in Lincoln two Saturdays ago, he showcased his game on the offensive side of the ball as well. Muhammad finished with a career-high 24 points, six rebounds, two assists, and three steals. The 6-foot-3 guard made 7-of-12 shots from the field, 3-of-4 from beyond the arc, and 7-of-8 from the free-throw line, including all six of his free-throw attempts in the final minute to clinch the win.
In that game alone, Muhammad showcased his ability not only as a high-intensity defender that will guard the opponent’s best guard or even forward, but in his first collegiate season, he proved that when the Buckeyes needed him the most, he can be counted on to score. To think that he will only improve with more experience and more games under his belt, and his future is very, very bright for the Buckeyes. The kid has plenty of potential, he just has to focus on improving every day while continuing to contribute for the scarlet and gray.
Then came Kaleb Wesson’s breakout game, one of the best games of his college career. The sophomore has already proven that he can be a dominant big man, whether it’s offensively or defensively, but his biggest problem has been foul trouble. While he may not be getting the benefit of the doubt from referees, Wesson has had quite a time staying on the floor simply because he fouls too much. But that’s a discussion for another day. This past Saturday, the big man proved that when he can stay on the court, he can dominate his opposition. Prior to Ohio State’s win over Rutgers this past weekend, Wesson fouled out in two of the Buckeyes last three games and has had at least four fouls in 11 of the last 15 games overall. Against the Scarlet Knights, he had just two fouls. It’s the main reason he was able to play a career-high 38 minutes.
While nothing a career high in minutes, it wasn’t simply just due to him not being in foul trouble, it was because Wesson dominated when he was on the court as well. The 6-foot-9, 270-pound forward finished with 27 points, four rebounds, five assists, one steal, and one block. He filled up the stat sheet, but it was his efficiency that was most impressive, making 10-of-12 shots from the field, 3-of-4 from three-point range, and all four of his free throws. Not only did he score 27 points, but Wesson had Ohio State’s first eight points of the game and 21 of their first 24 points overall. The only three points he didn’t have were due to a three-pointer by Muhammad, which Wesson assisted on. The big man singlehandedly outscored Rutgers through almost the entire first 15 minutes of the game.
It was quite a confidence boost for Wesson. If he can stay out of foul trouble, the sophomore knows that he can dominate offensively. It’s just being able to stay on the court that matters most.
“It’s been rough, but you know, I just have to calm myself down and control what I can control. I’m a competitor, so when things happen and I have to get taken off the floor, I get emotional. I really want to be out there with my guys. When stuff like that happens, I just have to take a step back. I talked to coach and everything, and he was telling me to control what I can control,” Wesson said following the win over Rutgers, according to Eleven Warriors’ Colin Hass-Hill.
“I mean, I’ve never been one to stay out of foul trouble,” Wesson said. “I’ve always been bigger than everybody, more physical. I’ve just always been in foul trouble. Just stuff like that, sometimes you think it’s Big Ten basketball and you think, ‘Oh, I’m getting horrible calls and everything like that,’ but you’ve just got to take a step back, see what the refs are seeing. You’ve got to watch a lot of film.”
“Just relief, but you know, we’ve got to get back to the next game,” Wesson said. “We’ve still got a lot of the season left and a lot of things to accomplish.”
Muhammad’s and Wesson’s performances during Ohio State’s last two wins have proven that the two can lead the Buckeyes to plenty of success in the short and long term. Add in that Holtmann is bringing a three-player recruiting class in 2019 that is one of the best in the country, along with returning a number of key players, and the scarlet and gray have a very, very bright future. Now, they just have to focus on improving and developing, all while the head coach continues to instill his success and leadership into the program.
The Buckeyes may struggle at times throughout this season, much like the last month has already proven, but Ohio State will have plenty of success on the hardwood in the very near future, that’s what is most important and something Ohio State needs to continue to focus on.
- That 2015 class was the fifth-best class in the country and atop the Big Ten, proving just how good they were projected to be. [↩]