Their toughest test of the season so far comes on the heels of their Nebraska win that snapped a five-game conference losing streak – a 9pm nationally televised game on Tuesday…against Michigan!
Columbus – It was after one of Ohio State’s five straight losses that Lori Holtmann greeted her husband at the front door and told him that he needed to have a little father-daughter talk as soon as possible.
Eight-year-old Nora Jane was upset seeing Chris Holtmann coming home looking distressed and in deep thought day after day after day.
Dad was trying to take a young team short on height and depth and win in a Big Ten conference in which playing even the ninth and 10th place teams is like wrestling a bear.
“You take losing way harder than you enjoy winning, and there is perspective required,’’ Holtmann said. “(My daughter) was very concerned about me. So that’s after the game and I had to wake her up and say, ‘Daddy is going to be OK, we’re going to keep fighting at this thing and keep working at it and trying to figure out how I can do better and put our guys in better position.’’’
He didn’t talk about Kyle Young’s leg stress fracture, Kaleb Wesson’s foul problems and fitting four freshmen into the rotation.
Nora’s dad might be really quiet this week preparing for a Michigan team that has lost exactly one regular season game in 256 days.
The Buckeyes (13-6, 3-5) play the fifth-ranked Wolverines (19-1, 8-1) at 9 p.m. Tuesday before what should be a jam-packed Crisler Arena and healthy national television audience.
Ohio State ended a losing streak at five games with a victory at Nebraska on Saturday.
“It’s no secret that we’re playing an elite team that has had a special season and has a chance to have another special season,’’ Holtmann said. “They have great versatility and obviously John (Beilein) is a tremendous coach.’’
Senior graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods played three seasons for Wake Forest in great Atlantic Coast Conference hell holes at Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and North Carolina State.
He has never stepped foot inside Crisler, but has seen the Wolverines play there on television. He kind of knows what to expect, especially for someone wearing an Ohio State uniform.
“It’s going to be a great environment, and we know that going in,’’ he said. “I’ve never played there. The only time I’ve seen them is on TV. But I can compare this going to play North Carolina. Going into that environment you’ve to be prepared for the fans and you’ve got to be prepared to take the fans out of the game. In order to do that, we have to execute our game-plan, do things we’re good at, and take them out of their game plan.’’
Woods heard about the rivalry, but got the best understanding attending the Michigan football game at Ohio Stadium in November.
“I understood how big it was, but being at that football game I really understood,’’ he said.
Freshman Luther Muhammad doesn’t have anything special in his bag saved for Michigan.
“They’re a great team, but I don’t pay too much attention to rivalry,’’ he said. “It’s next game and they’re a great team, a top 10 team in the country. They’re great from one to 10. We’ve got to come together and get another win.’’
Last season, Ohio State split with Michigan, winning 71-62 in Columbus and losing 74-62 in Ann Arbor.
This time, the Wolverines return six players who played in the national championship game loss against Villanova. Center Kaleb Wesson and guard C.J. Jackson were the only returning Buckeyes to play extended minutes.
How good is Michigan?
Center Jon Teske, a 7-foot-1 junior from Medina, Ohio, quickly has made the fan base get over Moritz Wagner leaving early for the Los Angeles Lakers. He is averaging 6.4 rebounds and leads the conference in blocked shots at 2.3.
Forward Ignas Brazdeikis of Ontario, Canada, leads the team in scoring (15.2), is third in rebounding (5.6) and might be the biggest competitor to Indiana’s Romeo Langford for Big Ten freshman of the year.
The most indispensable Wolverine is Zavier Simpson, a junior point guard from Lima. He scores a modest 8.8 points per game, but is at 5.6 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.6 steals. He leads the conference in assists.
Then there are Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole and Isaiah Livers.
Basketball people rave about Michigan’s five-headed offense and its impressive rhythm, but Holtmann is concerned about a defense that ranks third nationally in fewest points allowed (56.5) and is holding teams to 39.4 field goal percentage overall and 29.7 from three-point range.
“They have great individual defenders,’’ Holtmann said. “They have a great system. Anytime you have a great defense you are going to have great individual defenders. Simpson is as good of an on-ball defender as I’ve seen in college basketball both in his ability to be disruptive and his physicality. Teske is an elite ball screen defender. Matthews is a great defender. Poole gives them versatility.’’
Ohio State is far from that stage. The victory over Nebraska was an opportunity for the coaches and players to exhale.
Holtmann had a lot of things going on before Young was lost indefinitely to a leg stress fracture.
Before the Nebraska game, Holtmann was experimenting with a taller lineup. After Young’s diagnosis was confirmed, he had to devise a smaller lineup with 6-foot-6 Andre Wesson in the post when brother Kaleb was resting or in foul trouble.
There were 19 turnovers against the Cornhuskers, but the smaller lineup came through enough to get the win. Kaleb Wesson played 25 minutes and scored only seven points with Holtmann taking him on and off the floor to protect him against fouls.
“It has been out of necessity with Kyle going down,’’ Holtmann said of the smaller lineup. “Now, we’ll certainly have to play smaller for large stretches of the game.’’
The hard part is getting players who are receiving the first extended minutes of their college careers, Young, Andre Wesson, Muhammad, Duane Washington, knowing what is a good shot and what is not.
Muhammad generally passed the test with 24 career-high points in Lincoln.
“You cannot coach every pass,’’ Holtmann said. “I don’t want to coach every pass. I want to have guys who understand what our team’s best shot is, but also an understanding of shot discipline. I want aggressive guys. It’s hard when you have a new team and a young group.
“Last year we had a new team, but older guys who kind of figured it out by playing college basketball. They kind of knew that, hey, this wasn’t a good shot for me as a freshman and sophomore and I kind of got pulled a couple of times and now I’ve figured it out as a junior and senior.’’