While they’ve played 12 games in three states, are ranked 13th in the Associated Press basketball poll and have been a pleasant surprise to their fan base, the Buckeyes are still a bit of a mystery.
Columbus – There is a line in the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’’ where the character played by Paul Newman has a question as the train robbers are pursued over mountains and across rivers all over Bolivia by Union Pacific detectives.
“Who are those guys, anyway?’’ he said.
The same question can be asked of the Ohio State basketball team.
Even though they’ve played 12 games in three states, are ranked 13th in the Associated Press basketball poll and have been a pleasant surprise to their fan base, the Buckeyes are still a bit of a mystery.
Do they really belong with the cream of the college game, or have they played a schedule that looks good on paper with some bluebloods mixed in…but is on the ho-hum side?
The team’s last non-conference game before the grind of 18 Big Ten games comes against High Point at noon Saturday at The Schott. The Panthers are 6-6 playing a schedule of mid-major nonentities.
Not much was expected of Ohio State this season after it stunned everyone by winning 25 games and finishing runner-up in the conference in coach Chris Holtmann’s first season.
Holtmann, though, once again is proving to be one great hire in getting a team that is shy on depth, height and athleticism and with a lot of youth playing at a high level.
It was expected that 6-foot-9 sophomore Kaleb Wesson would be a solid pivot, that senior point guard C.J. Jackson would be the leader on the perimeter and that 6-8 sophomore Kyle Young and 6-4 junior swingman Andre Wesson would do a little bit of everything.
But the immediate contributions of freshmen Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington Jr. at guard and the experience of graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods have helped the Buckeyes again develop the personality of playing for one another.
Yes, Ohio State too often has played down to its competition. That was seen against Samford, Cleveland State, Bucknell and Youngstown State. Bucknell was a missed three-pointer from victory.
The Buckeyes were guilty of having one foot inside the locker room at the tail end of first halves against Minnesota, Illinois and Bucknell rather than building on leads.
CBS Sports ranks their schedule 74th nationally, and on the surface that’s stunning with victories over Cincinnati, Creighton and UCLA and the lone loss against Syracuse in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
Consider, though, that Cincinnati (11-2) has one notable victory, over Xavier, and has lost by 11 points to the only other notable on its schedule, Mississippi State.
Creighton (8-4) has defeated Clemson, but has lost to Nebraska, Gonzaga and Oklahoma, and UCLA (7-5) looks like a team that will get coach Steve Alford fired.
Syracuse (8-4) was a world-beater against Ohio State in winning 72-62, but that team has since lost to Old Dominion and Buffalo. Buffalo is one of the best teams to come out of the Mid-American Conference in years, but it’s still wearing mid-major clothes.
When I interviewed Holtmann for an Ohio College Basketball Coach of the Year Award story for The Columbus Dispatch last spring, he told me trying for an encore in 2018-19 after his great debut would be difficult without Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate.
It has been so far, so good. To a man, opposing coaches have raved about how hard Ohio State plays, especially at the defensive end, and how quickly Holtmann makes adjustments.
But the Big Ten looks to be the No. 2 conference in the land after the ACC with a potential national championship contender in Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin being big, brawny and bad, as usual, Nebraska slamming and jamming and Archie Miller slowly awakening Indiana.
And then you have Iowa, Maryland and Purdue right behind those teams.
Kaleb Wesson has been a tower of power, but what happens in the Big Ten when he’s playing a couple of players his size almost every night? If he gets into foul trouble, the first move is sliding Young into the pivot. If 6-9 true freshman Jaedon LeDee isn’t ready to play major minutes against UCLA and Bucknell, then he won’t be ready for Wolverines, Spartans and Badgers.
The Buckeyes did fare well in Big Ten victories over Minnesota (79-59) and Illinois (77-67). The former was longer and just as athletic and the latter much more athletic.
Other than Kaleb Wesson avoiding foul trouble, the Buckeyes’ success in the Big Ten will hinge on whether Jackson plays clean with the basketball and is consistent with his outside shot. Against UCLA, he started with two ugly turnovers and 2-for-9 shooting, but was front and center at the end at both ends of the floor when the outcome was decided.
Muhammad and Washington have played like 21-year-olds since opening night, and that must continue. Woods’ game rose after Holtmann told him to stop being the courteous new guy and look for his shot more and to get aggressive.
I’m thinking Ohio State goes to 12-1 with a victory over High Point. Then it must find a way to go at least 9-9 in the remaining conference games to reach 21 wins and be considered for a second straight NCAA tournament.
Remember, the tournament committee turns up its nose at teams that don’t have winning records in conference.
That’s a huge ask, what with the Buckeyes having to play Michigan State, Maryland, Iowa and Purdue twice. They do catch a break playing one game against Michigan, Indiana and Nebraska.
But it’s not out of the realm, especially with Holtmann running a show of players who have bought in.