So much of the 2018-19 season for Ohio State men’s basketball has been determined by, led by, and — at times — restrained by its immense youth. The Buckeyes have just three contributors that have been in college for more than two years, a number that has been repeated over and over all year long, by analysts, coaches, and just about anyone that watches this team. It’s been obvious that this Buckeye roster is very much dependent on youth, because, well, they look like a team led mostly by people who simply haven’t played a ton of college basketball.
That’s almost always a recipe for intense inconsistency, and it has been all year long for Chris Holtmann’s Buckeyes. When your best player is a sophomore, his backup is a sophomore, and you have just two seniors on the roster that didn’t start their careers as walk-ons (we love you Joey Lane), inconsistency is to be expected. Youth can explain Ohio State’s electric 12-1 start — with highs like wins over Cincinnati and Creighton — and it can explain the devastating lows — like a five game losing streak to start the calendar year and blowout defeats like the ones Ohio State suffered to both Purdue and Northwestern just over a week ago.
It was fair to assume that the youth would continue to define Ohio State’s season in what was easily the most crucial game of the season against Indiana in the No. 8 vs. No. 9 game of the Big Ten Tournament. It was considered by just about everyone to be an NCAA Tournament play-in game, and as has been the case all year, it was expected that Ohio State would need some combination of their young players, namely Kaleb Wesson, Luther Muhammad, Duane Washington Jr. and Justin Ahrens, to step up in order to get the win.
To an extent, that was true. The younger Wesson played a huge role in powering Ohio State’s offense, as he worked his way to the free throw line frequently, controlled the middle of the floor all game long, held Indiana’s star center Juwan Morgan to just 12 points while adding 17 of his own. Wesson, however, wasn’t the biggest piece for the Buckeyes in their 79-75 victory over the Hoosiers, though it is hard to overstate how crucial he is in facilitating this offense.
The biggest pieces to the victorious puzzle were those that we’ve been waiting to step up all year: the seniors, the upperclassmen. Andre Wesson hit three crucial free throws late, and played lockdown defense all game, grabbing three steals. C.J. Jackson had 17 points, five rebounds, five assists, and most importantly, just two turnovers. Keyshawn Woods led the Buckeyes in scoring with 18 points on 9-of-13 shooting, locked down Romeo Langford all day long, and had just one turnover.
The senior guards, two of the most talked about players on the team all year long (and not necessarily for good reasons at all times) came through when the Buckeyes needed them the most. That becomes even more apparent when you move past the box score and look at the context of their play.
When Indiana was on a 13-0 run to cut the Buckeye lead to just seven with four and half minutes to go, Jackson drained a three to move the lead back to ten off of an Andre Wesson steal. When Al Durham answered with a layup, Woods hit a tricky jumper, and on the next possession, after another Durham layup, Woods hit an even trickier jumper, fading out of bounds off of an inbound with just two seconds on the shot clock.
When Evan Fitzner cut the lead back to eight, Andre Wesson hit both of his free throws. With the Hoosiers trailing by just three after a Langford put-back under a minute to go in the game, Woods drained an impossible floater to give the Buckeyes a two-score lead on the biggest offensive possession of the game.
With help from Kaleb Wesson (drawing a charge on Fitzner) and Washington (breakaway dunk), Ohio State veterans were able to do what Ohio State desperately needed them to do: lead the young, rattled roster to victory in the face of a massive Indiana comeback. Fittingly, Andre Wesson and Jackson were there to close out the game with their free throws, in spite of a couple astounding threes from Devonte Green.
Jackson had 15 points in the second half; Woods had eight. In the final 3:40 — following the massive 13-0 run from the Hoosiers to cut into Ohio State’s seemingly insurmountable 20 point lead — Jackson, Woods and the elder Wesson combined for 14 of Ohio State’s final 16 points, and they needed every single bucket. With Kaleb Wesson suddenly cold from the floor, and no consistent production from any of Ohio State’s freshmen shooters (Muhammad, Washington, Ahrens), the Buckeyes looked to their leaders to make shots and Jackson, Woods and Wesson hit every single one.
I don’t know if that’s a sustainable model for Ohio State as they move towards a matchup with top-seeded Michigan State tomorrow, and presumably, the NCAA Tournament. This was easily Woods’ best game all year, and I’m not sure that the Buckeyes can bank on getting 18 points from him and 17 from Jackson every night. It seems unlikely, given the way this season has gone.
However, for at least one game, Keyshawn Woods, C.J. Jackson and Andre Wesson ruled the world, and were able to carry the Buckeyes into the next round of the Big Ten Tournament in the biggest game of the season. In a season like this, with so many struggles and growing pains fans would rather forget, that’s something Ohio State fans should always treasure.