After an unexpectedly successful 2017-18 season, many seem to believe that Chris Holtmann’s second year in Columbus will be a bit of a regression to the mean. Losing four key contributors to graduation, on paper it looks like the program will come into this campaign simply treading water until its top-5 2019 recruiting class comes to Columbus next summer.
However, if there’s anything that Holtmann’s first go-round with the Buckeyes should have taught us it’s that it is not wise to underestimate the man running OSU’s program. Ohio State comes into the fall picked to finish eighth in the Big Ten by the conference media, and nary a Buckeye made the Preseason All-B1G Ten Team. Somehow, I don’t think those facts will be overlooked in the Buckeye locker room.
If Holtmann’s team is going to surprise for the second-straight season, they will need to answer some questions. At Ohio State’s media day in September, Holtmann said, “The biggest question for this group is who’s going to answer the bell in crunch-time situations. The exciting thing is that we have a lot of new guys, but it also makes us anxious. Time will tell.”
Well, if time will tell as to who will answer the bell in crunch-time, we’ll try to answer three other questions that will be important for the Buckeyes if they want to make a return-trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Can Kaleb Wesson stay on the court?
In 2017-18, then-freshman center Kaleb Wesson averaged a respectable 10.2 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. Good numbers, but nothing befitting the talent that he flashed at times during his first season of collegiate basketball. The reason that the numbers never got as high as they could have is — at least in part — because Wesson only played 20.7 minutes per game.
At 6-foot-9, 270 pounds, the younger of the two Wesson brothers has always been on the bigger side for an elite basketball player. However, coming into his first year at Ohio State, reports were that he had worked himself into the best shape of his life over the summer, only to get sick in the fall, thus losing many of the gains that had made in the previous months.
However, Wesson’s conditioning was not the only thing that kept the talented big man from being on the floor as much as I’m sure Holtmann would have liked. While Wesson technically only averaged 2.8 fouls per game, he had three or more fouls in 19 of the team’s 33 contests last season, including seven games with four fouls, and five games of which he fouled out. The freshman big man also had a habit of picking up multiple fouls early in games, meaning that he would miss substantial portions of first halves, keeping his foul total down, but rendering him completely useless for his team.
It also stands to reason that Wesson’s lack of conditioning also likely contributed to some of his foul troubles, either by being out of position, or not being able to keep up with quicker post players.
Now with the likes of Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate gone, much of the dirty work required to compete in the Big Ten will fall to Wesson. With a year under his belt, and another offseason working with strength and conditioning coach Quadrian Banks, if Wesson can stay on the floor for anything approaching 30 minutes per game, he should be a walking double-double machine this year — he had 19 games with double-digit points last year, but only one game with double-digit rebounds.
At Ohio State’s media day last month, the younger Wesson said, “I feel like I’m in better shape than I was at the end of the year. As big as I am my game had to change… I have to keep my conditioning up.”
If Wesson is able to do that, then there is no reason to think that he won’t be able to compete with the B1G’s best big men, like Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, Indiana’s Juwan Morgan, and Michigan State’s Nick Ward. Side note, a Gahanna native, Ward played AAU basketball with Andre Wesson and played against both Wesson brothers when they were at Westerville South.
Who will be the team’s leader?
I don’t think that Holtmann would disagree that the success that his team had in his first year at the helm of Ohio State was shocking to many. The team came in 11th in the 2017-18 B1G preseason poll, but ended up finishing second in the conference standings when all was said and done.
Much of that surprising turnaround can be attributed to the contributions of a trio of Buckeye veterans and an unlikely graduate transfer. After missing much of the previous season with a stress fracture in his left leg Bates-Diop put together one of the best seasons in Ohio State history, earning B1G Player of the Year honors along the way.
Tate had his third-straight remarkably consistent season, earning Big Ten Second-Team honors. Kam Williams provided a spark in the backcourt, and for reasons that still defy logic, Michigan transfer Andrew Dakich worked himself into being a vital cog in the team’s success.
However, all four of those players are now gone. With all due respect to Joey Lane, C.J. Jackson is the only returning senior of consequence on the team, but he will be joined by Wake Forest graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods. By seniority alone, you would expect these two veterans to provide a young Buckeye squad with leadership, but since it is likely that they will be two of OSU’s primary ball-handlers, even more will fall upon their shoulders.
However, Holtmann could find some leadership in other places. Last season, the Buckeyes played four conference games over the course of 11 days in mid-January, winning all four en route to starting the B1G season 10-0. However, as that four-game stretch progressed, and the players were getting worn down, a surprising new contributor started to emerge as Andrew Wesson began to see more and more minutes.
By the time that stretch was over, he had gone from getting 10-15 minutes of playing time per game, to getting 20-25, if not more. The high point of his season was in early February, on the road against Purdue—a game in which he played 36 minutes. His brother had gotten into early foul trouble; in part because he was guarding 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas. So, rather than putting 6-foot-9 Micah Potter or 6-8 Kyle Young on the Boilermaker big man, specifically in the second half, Holtmann called upon 6-6 Andre Wesson to defend the future-NBA player who just so happened to be eight inches taller than him; and defend him he did.
Haas was 5-for-6 from the floor in the first half, but with Andre Wesson on him in the second half, was only 2-for-5, and the big man was only able to corral three rebounds as the then-No. 14 Buckeyes beat the No. 3 Boilers, 64-63.
Wesson is now a junior, and while he will probably never be completely out of his brother’s shadow, last year he showed an ability to do the little things that every team needs to be successful, but don’t always require a ton of ability.
At media day, Andre told reporters that he learned a tremendous amount about being a leader last season. “Watching Jae’Sean and Keita last year, I picked up some stuff from them,” he said. “I definitely have the people here to help me with that. Along with them, I’m going to help out as much as I can.”
How will freshmen be called upon to contribute?
According to 247Sports, Chris Holtmann’s first recruiting class — albeit an abbreviated cycle for him — was ranked first in the Big Ten. That 2017 class was highlighted by Kaleb Wesson, but also featured Young and Musa Jallow, who reclassified to be eligible to be in the class.
Perhaps because of the short turn around from being hired in June, despite the lofty ranking, the class never got the buzz that it likely deserved. On the other hand, the 2018 class finished the cycle ranked sixth in the conference, yet has a lot of people excited about the potential of its four freshmen.
“They have a lot of talent,” Jackson said at media day. “They bring a lot of different things to the table as far as on the court and off the court. They work hard. They came here very humbled and I’m very excited to see what they can do.”
Leading the class is shooting guard Luther Muhammad from Jersey City, N.J. Muhammad is a player well-known on the recruiting circuit for his complete game and propensity to talk trash.
Also in the group is Houston power forward Jaedon LeDee, whose athleticism could be a nice complement to Kaleb Wesson’s strength and inside game. These two players are the four-star, highly-sought after prizes of the class, and the freshmen most likely to see playing time early and often this season.
Also in the class are three-star combo-guard Duane Washington Jr. (Chatsworth, Cali.) and three-star small forward Justin Ahrens (Versailles, Ohio). These two are likely going to be projects for Holtmann, especially during their first years on campus, but each does provide depth and skill to a team sorely needing both.
However, if we focus on the prospects of Muhammad and LeDee getting on the floor for significant action this season, let’s evaluate how and why that might happen.
First with Muhammad; as mentioned above, both Woods and Jackson are likely to see a significant amount of time in the two guard positions, and I would guess that Woods will begin the season as the starting point guard, and Jackson at the two. Then you’ve got the sophomore Jallow — who technically should have been in the 2018 class — but that’s really it when it comes to experienced guards.
Speaking of Muhammad at media day, Potter said, “He’s got that super-tough, killer mentality. If someone beats him, he’s going to take it right back at you. Having him and Musa who are two lockdown perimeter defenders like that would be solid.”
So, I would expect that Muhammad would be in the backcourt rotation from the season opener against Cincinnati throughout the year. As for LeDee, the runway isn’t quite as clear for him to get onto the floor. Despite standing 6-feet-9-inches tall — the same height as Kaleb Wesson— the forward is only 230 pounds, and his skill set makes him much more of a play-making, stretch-4 than a physical post player.
Depending on how Holtmann chooses to arrange his lineup, LeDee could find himself competing for time against fellow fours Potter and Young, but also Andre Wesson and Jallow, if the Bucks go small, as they did in the latter part of last season.
Fortunately for all four of the freshmen, there’s only 13 players active on the roster right now, including former walk-on Lane and Air Force transfer walk-on Danny Hummer. So, opportunities to play should be there, especially in the non-conference slate.
Holtmann is likely to experiment with his rotation, lineup configurations, and minutes throughout the non-conference schedule, so I would assume that everybody eligible to play will be on the floor at some point in the first few months of the season. And, because the bench is so thin, it’s unlikely that any freshmen will redshirt. So, the future of the Buckeye program might be starting even sooner than we expected.