At times throughout the first two months of the season, the Ohio State Buckeyes have shown that they are one of the best teams in college basketball. They have also shown glimpses of being a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big Ten as well. That happens, it’s college basketball, but for the scarlet and gray, their struggles have caught up to them in each of their three losses so far this season. Even in their 11 wins, one aspect of their game is clear: The Buckeyes’ offense runs through Kaleb Wesson and they will go as far as the big man and the team’s three-point shooting will take them this season, especially in March.
Ohio State can lean on their hot-shooting hand from beyond the arc at times when they have it, but Wesson’s dominance in the paint is something that they can always go to even if their three-point shooting isn’t there. The pair work hand in hand. If Wesson is dominating in the post, it will help open easier shots from beyond the arc; if Ohio State is knocking down shots from three-point range, it will open up the paint for Wesson.
Friday night against Wisconsin, it was evident that Wesson’s dominance was the only thing Ohio State’s offense really had. As he has done so often during his career, the junior carried his team offensively. Wesson finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds while making 7-of-10 shots from the field and was 7-for-10 from the free-throw line. The 6-foot-9, 270-pound big man was just one rebound short of a double-double in the first half alone.
Yet, as the game continued, the Buckeyes seemed to have forgotten about Wesson’s dominance in the post earlier in the game. While Wisconsin continued to play one-on-one, man defense in the post, they pressured the guards and forwards on the outside much more. It made the Buckeyes abandon the post-game even though players not named Kaleb Wesson were a combined 12-for-37 from the field against the Badgers.
“In today’s college game right now, they can do everything but tackle you across the lane, and it not get called,” Holtmann said after the game. “So we got to figure out a way to play better in those situations when they’re chucking, grabbing and holding. It’s why the NBA has completely went away from (traditional post play). But listen, he’s our best player. We got to find a way to get him the ball in those situations later. But is it harder in today’s game? Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. We just need other guys to respond. I thought some guys made some decent reads. We just didn’t finish plays.”
Wesson seemed to say the same thing, admitting that his teammates had the opportunities but that it just wasn’t their night.
“Coaches saw that I had the hot hand and decided they wanted to feed me more,” Wesson said. “My teammates found me in the right spots to score. Toward the end, we saw that they were gonna collapse and it was time for their shots. We just gotta knock those down. I trust my teammates to hit those shots.”
As the team’s leading scorer both Friday night and so far this season, Wesson’s last field goal came with 9:19 left. His last points in the game came with 6:32 remaining when he made two free throws. His only two shot attempts in the final six minutes were three-pointers, both of which he missed. It was one of the main reasons the Buckeyes ended up getting upset by Wisconsin at home, 61-57, falling to 1-2 in the Big Ten and suffering their second straight loss. Naturally, Wesson’s final shot came with 19 seconds left, when he missed a three-pointer that would have tied the game.
An offense working from the inside out is fine, especially when said offense has a dominant center like Wesson, the problem becomes when the outside part of that offense is off of its game. When the two are working hand in hand, it’s hard to stop; when the outside shooting isn’t there, the defense can focus on their defense around the rim while forces their opposition to knock down shots from the outside. Only one of those has been working on a consistent basis lately, which is part of the reason Ohio State has lost each of their last two games and three of their last five games overall.
While injuries — Duane Washington Jr. missed two games due to a rib injury and Kyle Young has already missed a game and will possibly be out a couple of weeks after getting his appendix removed — have certainly played a role in the reason the Buckeyes have three losses this season, it’s something that they must fight through. When Washington was forced to miss two games, the first game Ohio State was without their second-leading scorer was at Minnesota. That’s when they suffered their first loss of the season when they lost by 13 to the Gophers. Then, the first game the Buckeyes were without Young was when Ohio State lost their third game of the season, this one being a loss at home to Wisconsin.
Ohio State needs a consistent (and efficient) scorer to step up to compliment Wesson. So far, they haven’t found it. Washington showed plenty of promise but hasn’t been the same player since returning from his rib injury. He’s the only other player that is currently averaging double-digit points besides Wesson. Even though there are currently eight Buckeyes who averaged more than seven points per game so far, they still must find that one player not named Kaleb Wesson that they can count on, both throughout every game and down the stretch of games when they need a basket.
Through 13 games, the scarlet and gray are shooting an impressive 39.6% from three-point range as a team, which is top-10 in the country. Yet, in their three losses to Minnesota, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, the latter two of which are known for their tenacity on defense, Ohio State is shooting just 32.8% from beyond the arc, which would rank 196th in the country; in their 11 wins the Buckeyes are shooting 41.3% from three-point range, which would be the fifth-best mark in the country.
The Buckeyes started the season 9-0 and were most likely going to be the No. 1-ranked team in the country if it weren’t for them losing to Minnesota. Since that perfect start to their season, Ohio State has now lost three of their last five games. While one of those wins came against Kentucky in Las Vegas, the three losses have shown a combination of the team’s inconsistencies and weaknesses.
It’s likely that Ohio State will find their groove that they had their first nine games of the season and in the win over Kentucky, especially once they are fully healthy, but they must continue to develop and improve while also leaning on their best player. Wesson’s ability to dominate in the paint not only makes the offense better but makes things easier for the rest of the team as well. It’s a win-win, the Buckeyes just have to learn that and not abandon that part of their game like they did late in the loss to Wisconsin.
I’ll put my money on Holtmann and company being able to learn from these losses, but until they find a legitimate, consistent complement to Wesson in the scoring column, their offense will likely continue to be up and down, just like they have shown over the last couple of weeks.