While the Ohio State men’s basketball team won’t officially know their NCAA Tournament status until next Sunday, it is difficult to imagine that the Buckeyes’ Senior Day effort didn’t help their status, despite the loss, heading into the Big Ten Tournament.
The Buckeyes were handed their third defeat in as many games without leading scorer and rebounder Kaleb Wesson, as he is serving a suspension for a violation of athletic department policy. This time around, it was at the hands of the No. 21 Wisconsin Badgers, 73-67. As were the losses to No. 11 Purdue and B1G basement-dwellers Northwestern, Senior Day at the Value City Arena was difficult to watch at times, but the Buckeyes turned in an inspiring and furious, late-second half comeback attempt.
Chris Holtmann’s squad again struggled to make shots, and no one was able to step up and fill the Kaleb Wesson-sized hole in the Buckeyes’ rotation or stat sheet, until they turned on an improbable run as time ticked down in regulation.
However, there was still cause for celebration on Sunday, as OSU recognized four seniors who have contributed to the program in various ways for various durations. Starting the game was former walk-on Joey Lane and transfer guards C.J. Jackson and Keyshawn Woods. Joining them in the pre-game festivities was volunteer student assistant, former All-American, and No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, Greg Oden, who will graduate in May.
Despite the good feelings pre-game, things turned quickly once the ball was in play. After one of the worst starts in modern Ohio State basketball history, or at least since Wednesday against Northwestern, the Buckeyes missed on their first 11 attempts from the field, before Duane Washington Jr. hit a pair of buckets, and Jackson followed up from the field and free throw line to tie the score at 8-8 with 10:45 remaining in the first half.
Unfortunately, from there, things got back to the point of pain. It took OSU 9:10 to score their next eight points, cutting the Badger lead to 24-16 with a fancy layup from Washington.
In the previous two games in which Kaleb Wesson was suspended, his absence was obvious on both ends of the floor. Opposing offenses dominated in the paint, and because he was missing in the middle, defenses were able to put extra pressure on OSU’s perimeter players.
While the former was true against Wisconsin — the Badgers outscored OSU 16-6 in the paint during the first half — the home team’s scoring problems were not primarily caused by defensive pressure. Routinely in the first 20 minutes, Buckeye shooters had clean looks, be it in the lane or behind the arc, but their shots went wonting. As a result, Holtmann’s team went into intermission shooting a putrid 6-of-29 (20.7%), including 1-for-8 (12.5%) from downtown.
The only thing keeping the game from being a blowout of epic proportions was the fact that Wisconsin wasn’t shooting all that much better, going 11-for-31 (35.5%) in the first half, including 2-of-10 (20%) from behind the arc.
At the break — at least in part due to the Senior Day starters — the Buckeye bench had 11 of the team’s 16 points, with Jackson’s five making up the difference.
Despite the massive disparity, OSU was still within shouting distance of the Badgers, but foul trouble loomed for the only players capable of competing inside for the home team. Andre Wesson had three first-half fouls, while Kyle Young had a pair. Musa Jallow, who replaced Lane in the game’s early minutes, had two as well.
Of course, it wasn’t helped when 12 seconds into the half Wesson picked up his fourth foul attempting to block an Ethan Happ dunk. Happ hit the free throws, and that started a major run for the Badgers. They hit nine of their first 12 attempts from the field after halftime, including their first four attempts from downtown.
Despite the hot shooting from Wiscy, Ohio State was actually able to go on a 13-5 run around the mid-point in the half, in part because of a move to a 2-3 zone on defense. Thanks to three-pointers from Luther Muhammad and Justin Ahrens, OSU was down 49-34 following the under-12 media timeout.
Once the shots stopped falling for OSU, they started forcing attempts outside of their offense, usually early in the shot clock. After making six-straight buckets, they missed six of their next seven, including three-point tries on four-straight possessions.
That being typed, on the next two trips, the Buckeyes did hit a pair of unusual triples, including a bank from Jackson and then a corner-three that hit the rim four times before falling from Woods. Combined with a layup from Jackson, the home team went on an 8-0 run to get within 14 at 58-44 with 5:36 remaining.
It was then that Wesson picked up his fifth foul, and was forced to exit the game. While you can accuse Holtmann’s team of a lot of things — lacking enough talent, size, depth, experience, etc. to compete with the conference’s big dogs — one thing that they proved against Wisconsin is that you can’t accuse them of quitting.
Ohio State just keeps hanging around... pic.twitter.com/m577agH8xY— CBS Sports CBB (@CBSSportsCBB) March 10, 2019
After an Ahrens’ three, the home team impressively got the deficit to just 11, 58-47 in favor of the Badgers, but OSU wasn’t done there. Turning up the defense and employing the Hack-a-Happ philosophy, Holtmann’s squad kept chipping away as the clock wound down.
Then, with 36 seconds remaining, Jackson hit a runner in the lane to tie the score at 63. On the subsequent Badger trip, the senior guard drew an illegal screen on Happ, giving the Buckeyes the ball with 29 seconds and a tie ball-game.
OSU settled for a Jackson three-point attempt that resulted in an air-ball and went out of ball with 1.3 seconds remaining. The Badgers were unable to connect, sending the game to one of the most shocking overtimes in Ohio State basketball history.
In the OT, Jackson took control on offense, but he wasn’t able to get a bucket, as he was fouled multiple times while going to the lane. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, he missed the first free throw on both trips, before converting the second. With two minutes remaining in the extra period, OSU trailed 67-65.
However, the Bucks could never get closer, and the upset bid fell short.
Fittingly in his final home game, Jackson led the squad with 22 points, and was the only Buckeye in double figures. After their rough first half from the field, OSU hit 18 of 32 attempts (56.3%) to make the game as thrilling as it was.
Badger guard Khalil Iverson finished the game with a double-double of 22 points and 14 rebounds. Happ got in on the fun with a double-double of his own; 16 points and 14 boards. The accomplishment by the senior forward was something of a milestone, as Ohio State was the last conference opponent that he hadn’t recorded a double-double against in his career.
The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has the ability to consider whether teams were missing major contributors during the season, and how that might have impacted their final records. This could be one of OSU’s saving graces as they limp towards the postseason. Before Kaleb Wesson’s suspension, they were widely considered a tournament team by all prognosticators.
If Holtmann and the university confirm either publicly, or directly to the committee, that Wesson will be back for the Big Dance, that could be a factor in their favor as the brackets are being drawn up. It also likely didn’t hurt that they were able to show tremendous resiliency against a quality opponent to force overtime.