With 16:45 to go in the second half of Ohio State’s 79-67 loss to Purdue, the Buckeyes trailed 48-34, and it seemed like everything was just about to get a whole lot worse. Kaleb Wesson had just been called for his fourth foul, meaning that the big man would be back on the bench, as he has been so many times over this five game skid.
In the previous four games, when Wesson went out, it usually meant Kyle Young would fill his place, and it also usually meant the Buckeyes were about to fall out of the game. Young wasn’t available to fill in today, though. He’s out with a leg injury. Instead, a noticeably frustrated Chris Holtmann sent in freshman wing Justin Ahrens to replace his star center.
Ahrens joined Andre Wesson, C.J. Jackson, Luther Muhammad and Musa Jallow. The tallest player on the floor, Wesson, stands at just 6-foot-6, a far cry from Purdue’s monstrous center, 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms.
This is not unfamiliar territory for the Buckeyes against Purdue. Last season, trailing by 14 with 10 minutes to go, Ohio State had been gashed by 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas all game. With Kaleb Wesson unable to slow down the center, Ohio State went unconventional, and tasked Andre Wesson with pestering him rather than trying to stop him.
Haas didn’t score for the rest of the game. Wesson was able to force turnovers by causing chaos and being more athletic than Haas, and with the interior presence silenced, the Buckeye offense sparked by their sudden increased spacing staged a massive comeback, cutting the deficit rapidly on their way to a massive 64-63 road win.
This year’s small ball revolution wasn’t able to pull off a full comeback, but after trailing by 14, the Buckeyes were able to claw back to within two with 10 minutes to play, before their shooting dried up, Purdue’s caught back on, and the Boilermakers pulled away late. Despite, the disappointing finish, Ohio State’s scoring frenzy and sudden defensive competence when they went small showed that all is not lost for this season. It showed that this team can be saved, and there is a light at the end of the tunnel for a roster that simply isn’t all that good.
From the 16:45 mark, when Justin Ahrens went in, to the 12:29 mark, when Andre Wesson was replaced by the larger Jaedon LeDee, Ohio State outscored Purdue by 10 points, 16-6. The Buckeyes, who haven’t been able to consistently shoot all season long, hit four three pointers. The defense that hasn’t had an answer for anyone since the calendar flipped to 2019 forced two turnovers and only allowed one made shot from Purdue (along with three free throws). Small ball doesn’t make Ohio State’s roster any more talented, but it provides the spacing the Buckeyes desperately need offensively, and the athleticism that Chris Holtmann’s rotation heavy defense requires.
This also doesn’t mean that Kaleb Wesson has to ride the bench for Ohio State to be successful. He still has tons of value as a scorer and passer, but Ohio State has to play through him when he’s on the floor, not around him, and they have to go away from that rotation defense when he’s on the floor. In addition to those changes, there’s no reason for Kaleb Wesson, Kyle Young, or Jaedon LeDee to be on the floor with each other at any time. All three need to be alone as the big on the floor when they see playing time.
When Ohio State does go small, whether it’s to spark a run or just to switch things up, they need to embrace it fully. At least three guards, paired with two of Andre Wesson, Musa Jallow and Justin Ahrens. All five guys need to be willing to shoot if they’re open, or attack the open if they have a lane. All five guys have to play with the confidence we saw in that four minute stretch. Andre Wesson and Jackson have to be willing to lead and take big shots as they were in the second half against Purdue. Ohio State isn’t winning a title this year, hell, they may not even make the NCAA tournament, but with a small ball option, they have a chance to salvage this rebuilding year and turn it into positive momentum.