It has been a long and bumpy road for Ohio State hoops this year. A hot start to the season provided hope for a strong campaign, but a dismal month of January has the Buckeyes now fighting to regain relevancy.
The team has had nearly a week off since their last contest, finally able to find a win thanks to the bottom dwellers of the Big Ten in Northwestern. A victory over a subpar opponent isn’t going to suddenly inject a spiraling group with confidence. However, there were some things OSU did well in that game that they could potentially use to help build momentum moving forward as the Buckeyes near the midway point of the conference schedule.
Ohio State had previously faced off with Indiana this season, losing the first meeting at Assembly Hall. A middle-of-the-pack team in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers do certainly provide their own set of challenges. But with this game being in Columbus, the Buckeyes needed to try and steal a win on Saturday in order to begin the long climb back up the conference standings.
The Ohio State team fans had fallen in love with earlier in the year looked like it had made its return, as the Bucks defeated the Hoosiers 68-59 behind a complete performance across the board. Kaleb Wesson led OSU with 15 points, with CJ Walker adding 14 and Justin Ahrens putting up 11 off the bench. The defense had returned back to form as it smothered Indiana all afternoon, and the Buckeyes dominated the offensive glass 11-4 en route to their second-straight victory.
Let’s take a look at a few things we learned in Ohio State’s Saturday matinee against the Hoosiers.
Mental health comes first
Before things even got started, Ohio State knew it was going to be without point guard D.J. Carton. The freshman announced on Twitter this Thursday that he would be temporarily stepping away from the team to focus on his mental health issues. Carton explained that he is disappointed to not be at 100 percent right now, and that he felt he would be doing a disservice to his teammates if he didn’t take a break to get himself right.
The announcement was met with largely positive feedback on social media, with many applauding his bravery for opening up about an issue that can be tough to speak on, especially for athletes. He even drew a response from Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, who himself has been an advocate for mental health issues, telling Carton he has much love and respect for him, and that he could reach out to Love if need be.
Carton is the Buckeyes’ second leading scorer with 10.4 points per game despite only starting three games. While his on-court performance is certainly important to Ohio State’s success, life always comes first. We here at LGHL are fully behind Carton, and hope that he can find the help he needs and rejoin the team at some point even stronger than before.
Winning with Wesson
It is no secret that Kaleb Wesson is Ohio State’s best player on the court. When he doesn’t get going, the team doesn’t get going, and that has been especially apparent over the course of this year. He had two pretty bad shooting performances in the last five games, one against this Indiana team in the last matchup and then accentuated by a two-point game in the loss to Minnesota in which he shot 1-of-10 from the field.
The Buckeyes have to get their big man involved in the offense early and often, and they made sure to make that a point of emphasis against the Hoosiers. OSU started the afternoon with a clear focus on getting the ball into the paint to the star forward, and it paid off as Wesson scored the team’s first six points. Indiana was comfortable out of the gate going one-on-one with the 6-foot-9, 270-pound big man, but he was able to use his pure size and strength to back down under the basket for easy twos.
Ohio State seemed to shy away from featuring Wesson for the rest of the first period, but he really came alive in the second. He would finish with 15 points on a hot 7-of-12 shooting with 11 rebounds as he secured a double-double. The forward was a force around the rim on both ends, bullying the Hoosiers down low all afternoon as he finished with game-highs in points and rebounds.
Blood, sweat and tears
Everyone has lauded Kyle Young’s toughness all season. He was the spark plug for Ohio State on both ends of the floor earlier in the year, and his energy was sorely missed when he was out of commission for a bit after needing surgery to remove his appendix. Incredibly, Young only missed two games after the surgery, and was right back on the floor giving his all to try and help his team out in any way he could.
Young is now fully recovered from his short stint away, and is back to doing all the dirty work for the Buckeyes. He is constantly crashing the boards, diving for loose balls, catching alley-oops and overall just leading the team through his energy and passion for the game. Unfortunately, the junior forward can't catch a break, and was forced to leave the game in the first period on Saturday after taking an accidental arm to the face that caused a nose bleed.
The team medical staff was having a tough time getting the bleeding to stop, and Young would be taken to the locker room. The referees took a look on the monitors at the play that caused the injury, and correctly deemed it incidental contact as the two guys were simply fighting for a rebound. Unsurprisingly, Young’s toughness would persevere, and he would return to the court right before halftime with seemingly no ill effects.
Live by the three, die by the three
Ohio State entered Saturday’s game with somewhat surprisingly the best three-point shooting percentage in the Big Ten at 38.2 percent. Guys like Duane Washington Jr., CJ Walker and even Kaleb Wesson have been knocking down shots from downtown with ease all season long, but that was not the case against Indiana.
The Buckeyes were not hitting with any consistency from three-point range against the Hoosiers, hitting on just 3-of-13 attempts in the first half. Conversely, the Buckeyes have not been great at defending the deep-ball, ranking 11th in the conference in three-point defense. Indiana was taking advantage of that early on, not shooting with much volume but hitting 3-of-5 attempts from beyond the arc in the opening period including a half-court shot heading into the break.
The second half was an entirely different story for Ohio State. The home team got hot from deep out of the break, drilling 7-of-14 attempts from beyond the arc in the second period. Indiana continued to hit at a high clip, but were not shooting the three at a high volume as they finished the game hitting 7-of-12 from deep. Justin Ahrens and Andre Wesson led the Buckeyes in shooting from downtown, each hitting a trio of long-balls.
January’s finally over
Ohio State was awful in January. finishing the month with a 2-5 record. They dropped home contests they easily could have won against average Big Ten opponents in Wisconsin and Minnesota, they lost by double digits on the road three separate times, and their only two wins were against the two teams in last place in the conference standings in Nebraska and Northwestern.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t been an uncommon thing for head coach Chris Holtmann, who has struggled throughout his coaching career in the month of January for some odd reason. At both Butler and Ohio State, Holtmann owns an impressive 81.8 pre-January win percentage. However, once the calendar flips to the first month of the new year, that win percentage drops to around 50 percent during his time at the two schools.
These are not uncharted waters for a Holtmann-led team. The Buckeyes had a similar swoon last season, beginning the year 12-1 before going 1-6 in January. Even one of Holtmann’s most experienced teams, the 2015-16 Butler squad, went from 84.6 percent pre-January win percentage to 37.5 percent that January.
It is hard to pinpoint just exactly what has caused Holtmann to struggle in a specific calendar month each season, but luckily there is usually relief once February hits. Between Ohio State and Butler, Holtmann’s win percentage has jumped back up to near 60 percent post-January. The Buckeyes took a step in the right direction on Saturday, looking much more like the team we saw winning games earlier in the year. We will have to wait and see how things play out the remainder of the way.