The 2018-19 men’s basketball season at Ohio State was far from easy to predict, far from easy to understand, and at times, far from easy to watch. The Buckeyes soared to massive highs with wins over Cincinnati, Creighton, and Iowa, and looked like a legitimate Big Ten contender after starting the year 12-1. But, the Buckeyes also dropped to massive lows, dropping five straight to open the calendar year, and rattling off bad losses down the stretch to Illinois and Northwestern. The wild inconsistency — the excellent start followed by a not so excellent second act — and the massive highs and lows were unexpected as we entered the season.
The final result? Also, a bit unexpected, though not nearly as much as last season’s incredible over-achievement that saw the Buckeyes very nearly win the Big Ten on their way to a five seed in the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State is in the Big Dance again, this time as an 11 seed, and as one of the final at-large bids. However, they don’t have to play in First Four to make it into the field proper, and even better, they don’t have to host an NIT game as one of the top seeds. Ohio State is in, just plain in, and when you consider where the Buckeyes came from to get here, that’s pretty admirable.
There are three points of interest that I’d like to address, and I don’t think can go unchecked when thinking or talking about this edition of Ohio State basketball. Firstly, to say that this team overachieved would be untrue. The expectation was, from most people, that this would be a roster carried by two senior guards and a star center, that would finish in the middle of the pack of the Big Ten and slip into the NCAA Tournament as a bubble team.
Obviously the way that Ohio State achieved it was different, but it is fair to say that the final result for the 2018-19 Buckeyes was about what was expected, which means that they merely lived up to their expectations, rather than shattering them like we saw last year.
The second is tied into those original expectations, and centers mostly around the journey that Ohio State took to get to where they are, because sports mean nothing when you just look at the end result. You have to contextualize, and the context of Ohio State’s season in full is that the Buckeyes absolutely did not follow the path many expected them to in order to get to this point, because that path very quickly ceased to exist.
The path, as mentioned, was that Ohio State would lean on Keyshawn Woods, C.J. Jackson, and Kaleb Wesson to score the majority of their points, and through that trio, they could likely secure the eight spot in the Big Ten and sneak into the NCAA Tournament. That was a reasonable expectation, and one we made as well, because, well, it seemed right at the time.
As we now know in hindsight, it was unfair to expect elite guard play, night in and night out, from two transfers that were never really meant to lead a team of this magnitude, by their own admission. Jackson came to Ohio State expecting to be a spark plug of energy off of the bench alongside a roster with far more experience and talent than this one actually had. Instead, he was forced to serve as the senior leadership, and the main point guard, despite coming to Ohio State as a shooting guard. That’s a challenge, and at times, he understandably faltered.
Woods was put into a similar spot. Because Ohio State just doesn’t have a true point guard on the roster, Woods was moved from shooting guard to point guard, and just never fully adjusted. He was designed to be a shot creator, and that’s very hard to do from the point guard spot. We’ve seen flashes of what he could be as a shooting guard recently, but Ohio State just didn’t have that all year.
That means that instead of relying on elite veteran guard play, the Buckeye offense — the entire Buckeye offense — ran through Kaleb Wesson; the very talented, very young, still very mistake prone sophomore center. Ohio State rode Kaleb’s talent, the emergence of big brother Andre Wesson as the team’s true glue guy, and production from a number of other underclassmen (namely Duane Washington Jr., Luther Muhammad, Kyle Young and Musa Jallow), along with of course the veteran point guards to a tournament berth. That gets more impressive the more that you think about it, and also entirely explains the wild inconsistency. Young players are inconsistent, and Ohio State relied on them more than just about any other team in the Big Ten.
That brings us to the third point, which, in a way, explains the second, and makes the first that much more astounding. Ohio State had the entirety of what would’ve been this year’s senior class wiped out by transfers. All five of those guys were expected to be on this roster, leading this team, landed elsewhere, meaning that Chris Holtmann had to fill all that space with transfers and underclassmen.
Then, the top half of the 2016 class (per 247Sports) departed, with Derek Funderburk off to N.C. State and Micah Potter off to Wisconsin just days before the season started. That left Ohio State with just one junior on the roster (Andre Wesson), and neither of the two big men that could’ve very easily served as backups for the foul-prone younger Wesson.
All of that attrition, as well as the loss of point guard Braxton Beverly to N.C. State means that Holtmann has had to almost completely rebuild Ohio State’s roster in two years. Last year was held together by the last remaining full Matta class, but this year is almost exclusively Holtmann.
Andre Wesson, Joey Lane and C.J. Jackson are the lone scholarship players on this roster brought to Ohio State by Matta rather than Holtmann, and Holtmann has only been at Ohio State for a little under two years.
That means that since June of 2017, Holtmann has had to build a roster essentially from scratch to survive this season. Keyshawn Woods, Kaleb Wesson, Musa Jallow, Kyle Young, and the four 2018 freshmen are all Holtmann guys. Throw in transfer CJ Walker, and that’s nine of Ohio State’s 12 scholarship basketball players. In two recruiting classes, Holtmann has nearly filled out an entire roster, and despite that youth, Ohio State is still tournament bound.
Add in a five star point guard in DJ Carton, and two four star wings in Alonzo Gaffney and EJ Liddell, as well as a possible transfer or one of Ben Roderick or Ibrahima Diallo to a Buckeye roster losing just Woods, Jackson and Lane after this year, and it’s easy to see what Holtmann is building. It’s easy to see how bright the future, even the near future could be at Ohio State. And it’s easy to forget exactly where this program came from, and how impressive it is that in the ultimate retooling year, Ohio State is still tournament bound.