Every day when members of the Ohio State men’s basketball program walk from the locker room to the practice gym, they’re reminded of the importance of toughness. It’s not subtle, either. Upon leaving the locker room, players walk down a hallway which is adorned with photos of former Ohio State athletes holding their diplomas and cutting down nets — two accomplishments that should be celebrated equally. At the end of that hallway they arrive at a staircase that goes up to the practice gym.
At the bottom of the staircase, about a dozen steel chains are clamped onto the concrete wall. Hung over these steel chains is the phrase “The tougher team sets the rules” in big black letters. This phrase is one that former Butler and Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens made a core tenet of his Butler program from 2007-2013, and one that Holtmann has carried over to Ohio State. Even when shots are not falling, the tougher team has the edge — the tougher team always has the edge.
And after facing three inferior opponents who sit outside the top-300 in the nation (and winning all three), Ohio State will face a reality check Monday evening when they square up with the gold standard of the Mountain West Conference — San Diego State.
The Buckeyes survived the softest part of their schedule, but they’re quickly wading into the deep end of the pool. Playing the No. 354 team in the country on Wednesday and then the No. 17 team five days later is one hell of a jump, and how the Buckeyes respond will be very telling as we begin to learn more about this young team. Have you ever hopped out of a hot tub and jumped back into the pool? The initial shock — that change in temperature — is what the Buckeyes will feel Monday night at the Lahaina Civic Center against the Aztecs.
On Wednesday night, Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said the Aztecs can “Clearly get to the Final Four” and that facing San Diego State is akin to facing a lineup of “grown men” and he’s not wrong. The Aztecs start one non-senior player — junior guard Lamont Butler. Aside from him, they start:
- Darrion Trammell - fourth-year senior guard
- Nathan Mensa - fifth-year senior center
- Matt Bradley - fifth-year senior guard
- Keshad Johnson - fourth-year senior forward
The Aztecs were picked to win the Mountain West Conference this year in the pre-season media poll, and were also picked to win the MWC in The Field of 68’s Basketball Almanac. They began the season at No. 19 in the AP Poll and have since jumped to No. 17 after wins over BYU and Stanford. More importantly, they have the No. 9 defense in the country right now, allowing 87.6 points per 100 possessions (or .87 points per possession, to simplify things). Last season, they were the No. 2 defensive team in the country.
Over the past several seasons, Brian Dutcher’s teams have created an identity and reputation for being one of the most physical and aggressive teams in the nation when guarding the ball. They led the Mountain West in steals each of the past two seasons, and are averaging over 12 steals per game this year. How will an Ohio State team that’s averaging 15 turnovers per game prevent the Aztecs from pressuring them into 15 or 20 more turnovers Monday night?
“Well, we’ve certainly put a lot of thought into that,” Holtmann said Wednesday evening. “I think we need to simplify the way we’re playing offensively. Listen, I think we’re going to turn the ball over more than we have in the past. When you have this number of new guys and freshmen, and a number of our freshmen are handling the ball. And you also have Justice back, but he has got to take care of the ball better. He’s got to be better in that area. I think that’s an area where we will improve as the year goes on.”
As Holtmann said, sixth-year senior Justice Sueing was the biggest culprit on Wednesday evening. The sixth-year senior had six points and five turnovers in the win, and it was his worst performance of the young season. Bruce Thornton and Isaac Likekele, the two main ballhandlers, each had three turnovers apiece against Eastern Illinois. Collectively, Ohio State has to take better care of the basketball and San Diego State is the exact type of team that’ll make things miserable for them if they fail to do so.
But the Buckeyes, in their own right, are currently the No. 42 defense in the country after finishing 111 last year. Sure, it’s been against tiny teams who were cut a fat check to fly to Columbus and lose, but still. Ohio State has dominated the glass so far this year, averaging 49 total rebounds per game. Zed Key and Felix Okpara have been stoppers below the basket while guys like Tanner Holden and Roddy Gayle have shown some real chops defending on the ball.
There will be a ton of attention on the Aztecs Monday evening as the favored team, and deservedly so. But Ohio State has a golden opportunity to prove if the defense that held Eastern Illinois to an impressive 25% shooting on Wednesday evening and 43 total points is legitimate or not.
Like it says in the stairwell, the tougher team sets the rules. We’ll which of these undefeated teams sets the rules on Monday night.