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Updated: Despite excellent effort in late comeback, Ohio State was doomed by athletic department uncertainty

In benching Kaleb Wesson for a third straight game with no explanation, OSU has hamstrung its own team.

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Holtmann made a very loud, very clear announcement when he told media on Friday that star center Kaleb Wesson would be missing his third straight game on Sunday. He made it clear that he didn’t care if Ohio State beats Wisconsin, and that he didn’t care if Ohio State makes the NCAA tournament, which they sat firmly on the bubble of heading into today’s overtime loss against the Badgers.

I get it. It’s a way to establish that he refuses to accept poor behavior from his players, and it’s a way to show that no one, not even the star player, is exempt from swift retribution for getting in trouble. Even if it comes at the expense of the team success. Kaleb did something wrong, and it isn’t atypical for coaches to make players sit because they did something wrong as a form of punishment.

Kaleb is nowhere near the only person impacted by a three game suspension that, for all we know, could continue into the Big ten tournament. Ohio State has a full team of players that may miss out on the chance to compete in the NCAA tournament because their coach wanted to make an example of the star player. C.J. Jackson, Keyshawn Woods and Joey Lane, all seniors recognized today, will never have another shot to play in the biggest tournament in college sports, on the highest stage in college basketball. The seven freshmen and sophomores on the roster won’t get the great early career experience provided by the tournament.

Instead, they were forced to battle three teams led by star centers without their own, left out to dry by their own coach. Predictably, the Buckeyes were beaten three times, unable to slow down Matt Haarms, Derek Pardon or Khalil Iverson, and were completely impotent on offense without the steady hand of Wesson guiding them with his post play. Ohio State followed up their most encouraging win of the season, a blowout win over Iowa sparked by an offensive explosion from Justin Ahrens, by cutting their own legs off entering the final stretch.

Obviously, Ohio State had to do something. Wesson broke rules, and for breaking rules, he had to face a punishment. However, an indefinite suspension, one that no one but Chris Holtmann knows the end date for, is no longer serving as just a way to teach Wesson a lesson. It’s an albatross around the neck of an extremely young, extremely inconsistent team that was put there entirely by the coach responsible for the development of said team. No development is coming from this. Getting smacked in three straight games to end the season, and looking down the sights of a fourth against Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament isn’t a “valuable learning experience” for the freshmen and sophomores on this team.

However, being without the star of the team in three very winnable games while sitting firmly on the bubble isn’t doing anyone at Ohio State any good. It’s not fair to Kaleb’s teammates who put forth one hell of an effort in his absence but simply didn’t have the firepower to complete their furious comeback. It’s not fair to this roster that they now have a more difficult draw in their first Big ten Tournament game, in a position where they almost certainly need a win to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament.

I’m almost certain that the effort will be there when Ohio State takes the court against Indiana next week, just as it has been all season. However, if Kaleb Wesson isn’t, the young Buckeyes will be at a pretty massive disadvantage, and they have their own head coach to thank for extending a punishment far past its reasonable range.

Author’s note: This article needs to be qualified a bit, and it’s my bad that that wasn’t done upon publication. We’re aware that the suspension was based on a violation of athletic department rules, not necessarily Holtmann’s, which means that there is a question about who controls the length of suspension. While Holtmann may have something to do with that decision, there’s no way to say for sure that he’s responsible, though he is still part of the athletic department, and would presumably have a say on the matter.

Secondly, if Wesson was punished for a serious offense, he should obviously see severe punishment for it. However, because of the nature of the suspension, the way Ohio State has discussed the suspension, and the fact that Wesson has been on the bench for all three games that he’s missed — including traveling with the team to two — it can be assumed that the offense was relatively minor, at least in terms of what the university would have jurisdiction over.

The onus of the article, and something I should’ve made far more prevalent in the original publication, is that the main critique should be on the lack of clarity in terms of the parameters of the suspension. I focused instead on the coach and the player, and that’s my mistake.

From the beginning, Ohio State has said that Wesson would be back this season. This statement undoubtedly led to significant confusion in terms of the severity of his offense, and the likely length of his suspension. Even following Sunday’s regular season finale, Holtmann was unable to say when Wesson would return, though they could have as few as two games remaining on the season (assuming they accept a postseason berth, which I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t).

The university and/or the head coach has left a lot up to rumor in the way that they’ve operated during this suspension, and that puts an unnecessary amount of heat on both Holtmann and Wesson. Certainly there are circumstances (I’d even say most applicable circumstances) where discretion if the better part of valor when dealing with student-athletes, and keeping things quiet is usually the best option. However, when the public is strung along and left guessing at details, it naturally draws assumptions.

If the university had provided more context to the situation, or if they were not able to, either simply said that Wesson would be suspended until further notice, or they had not allowed him to be on the bench during his time off of the court, it would have made things much easier to understand.

That being said, I understand that Chris Holtmann might have his hands tied in relation to the suspension, and if that is the case, I apologize for questioning the decision. Either way, I stand completely behind Holtmann as OSU’s head coach, as I have written and talked about from the moment he arrived on campus.

I want to thank everyone who had passionate responses to the article for helping me see the situation in a clearer light.