The Buckeyes must contend with one big body Saturday, while eighth-ranked Michigan State has a stable full of them. “We’ll need to be at our very, very best,” says coach Chris Holtmann.
Columbus – Kaleb Wesson and Nick Ward each might have thought he was the biggest, baddest and tallest elementary school kid in Columbus until they played in a church league basketball game together.
They sized each other up and, seriously, looked to be separated at birth.
Wesson and Ward continued to cross paths in AAU basketball and in the Ohio Capital Conference, the former with Westerville South and the latter with Gahanna.
“They definitely are battles,’’ Wesson said. “It’s almost like looking at Spiderman and Spiderman.’’
The problem for Wesson and the rest of his Ohio State teammates is that beyond the 6-foot-9, 245-pound Ward Michigan State will have one big body after another coming at them when the teams play at noon Saturday at The Schott.
At 6-9, 270, Wesson is the only Buckeye in the rotation with great size.
Spartans coach Tom Izzo often has 6-8, 245-pound Xavier Tillman playing with Ward at the same time. There are a number of players in the 6-6 and 6-5 and 210-pound range.
Michigan State (12-2, 3-0) is ranked eighth nationally and has won 15 straight Big Ten games since last season.
“We’re preparing for an elite team,’’ second-year Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “They play exceptionally hard and physical. They are top five, top three, top four in just about everybody (statistical) category out there. We’ll need to be at our very, very best.’’
Asked whether Michigan State is a little old school in that it plays with big and beefy players in an age of three-point artists and pick-and-roll, Holtmann agreed.
“The mark of some of Izzo’s genius is his consistency,’’ he said. “I say that with great respect. We know how hard that is to do at an elite level. They play a style that is a little bit of a throwback (considering) today’s game. The physicality they play with – the length and size they play with – is a little bit of a throwback. I’ve always appreciated watching his teams and learning how they played. I appreciate the competitive spirit of his team and how coach-able his group has been. He coaches them hard and they embrace that aspect.’’
Izzo has won 586 games in 24 1/2 seasons. If that wasn’t impressive enough, consider that he won a national championship in 2000, has coached in six other Final Fours, has takent the team to 21 straight NCAA tournaments and won eight Big Ten regular-season and five post-season tournament championships.
Ward, a junior, is averaging 16.4 points and 6.4 rebounds. Tillman, a sophomore, is at 8.6 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.
The team’s headliner, though, has been 6-1 junior point guard Cassius Winston at 17.1 points per game.
“He’s like the head of the snake,’’ Ohio State point guard C.J. Jackson said of Winston.
The Spartans could be without 6-5, 210-pound junior Joshua Langford with a left ankle injury. He started 73 games until being held out of an 81-55 victory over Northwestern. He has had a magnetic resonance imaging test and was scheduled to see a specialist Thursday or Friday.
“He’s a bucket-getter,’’ Winston said of Langford.
Ohio State(12-1, 2-0) is ranked 14th, but Holtmann has told the players not to get full of themselves.
Last season, the Buckeyes ripped the Spartans 80-64 on January 7 en route to a 9-0 start in conference. Flat out, Holtmann said, they caught a lot of Big Ten teams in transition seasons.
These Buckeyes, he said, don’t have stars such as Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate.
It will be up to a player like 6-8 sophomore Kyle Young to give Wesson a lot of help underneath. After him, the next big man is true freshman Jaedon LeDee, and there have been games when he has received only single-digit minutes playing time.
“As a program we’re not quite there yet,’’ Holtmann said. “Those numbers (rankings) aren’t realistic for this team. The realities are that while on paper our non-conference schedule looked good, but there are some teams that haven’t quite performed what we anticipated. We don’t know what we are yet as a group. We’ll learn a whole lot more in a month.’’
Ohio State has confounded Holtmann with lapses at the end of halves that have seen opponents go on long scoring runs. He has seen the team let down after getting large leads.
Here’s another scary point: High Point, a mid-major with little portfolio, badly outrebounded Ohio State last Saturday.
Michigan State, meanwhile, has been a combination Superman and Ironman underneath the basket. That has translated to victories over Texas, Iowa and Florida and a close loss to Louisville.
“This team right now is not quite there yet,’’ Holtmann said of the Buckeyes. “You can take video of our recent games and see that we have a ways to go. I think our guys hopefully have an understanding of that. I’ve told them a number of times about how unrealistic and irrelevant the rankings are.’’
Wesson appreciates that Holtmann always is after the players to raise their games.
“You don’t want somebody to lie to you,’’ he said. “You want to be pushed every day. You want to get better.’’
So what must Ohio State do to have a chance to defeat Michigan State?
“This is why you come to universities like this – for games like these,’’ Jackson said. “We have to be connected as one. We have to stay connected for 40 minutes.’’