Four highly-rated freshmen and Florida State transfer C.J. Walker inject the Buckeyes’ roster with fresh talent…and a fresh competitive profile for the program.
They must trust in one another like foxhole buddies. They must play for one another through thick or thin. They must keep every juicy tidbit that goes on within their group inside the locker room for no ears to hear.
The day before the exhibition game against Cedarville, though, true sophomore guard Duane Washington spilled what has been the Buckeyes’ preamble to the season like an elementary school kid does a glass of milk.
The numbers 8, 12, 15 and 193 are written on signage near the threshold of the locker room, and Washington said so.
“We were eighth in the conference, had 12 losses in the conference and 15 losses overall and were 193rd in the country in turnovers,’’ Washington said. “We walk past is every day going into the locker room and leaving the locker room and weight room. It’s on the TV screen when we’re lifting.’’
Third-year coach Chris Holtmann was dumbfounded that inside information had been leaked.
“I should have told them that that stays inside our locker room,’’ he said. “Who volunteered that? Duane? It’s just a reminder for us – all of us who go inside and outside our locker room – how we’re trying to improve in specific areas.’’
The Buckeyes were maddening last season playing three sophomores and three freshmen in their rotation, having forward Kyle Young play on one leg because of a stress fracture and losing center Kaleb Wesson to a three-game suspension in the stretch run. They still finished 20-15 with a NCAA Tournament bid.
Holtmann went through some of the most trying times as a head coach.
“I remember thinking through this last year being on the sideline going through some (bad) stretches thinking, ‘I hope this helps us next year,’’’ Holtmann said. “I remember a lot of games – too many games where I said that – and it was honest.’’
There should be more uncertain times for Holtmann trying to ingrain four freshmen, including five-star point guard D.J. Carton, and Florida State transfer C.J. Walker into the rotation.
Starting quickly is a must with non-conference games against Cincinnati in the season opener on Wednesday in The Schott, Villanova, North Carolina, West Virginia and Kentucky.
The times should be changing for the better for the Buckeyes, and they pundits say as much. A poll of Big Ten writers conducted by Adam Jardy of The Columbus Dispatch picked Ohio State for second in the conference.
Carton has been pegged as a possible one-and-done college player. He could be a team-changer more than a game-changer.
Another freshman, E.J. Liddell, is a long-armed and thick 6-foot-6 forward who can be conspicuous in the lane. He was Illinois’ Mr. Basketball.
The other frosh are 6-9 Alonzo Gaffney of Cleveland and 6-10 Ibrahima Diallo of Senegal.
“All of them have had moments where they’ve looked like the gifted players they are and all of them have had moments where they’ve looked like the freshmen they are,’’ Holtmann said. “There’s going to be a learning curve there.’’
Ohio State should be one deep team at the point with Carton and Walker. Walker started 34 games as a sophomore at Florida State as a sophomore before transferring. He averaged 8.0 points.
It could have been assumed that Walker would be behind Washington and Luther Muhammad in the rotation, but don’t rule out Walker and Carton playing a lot together.
Washington can penetrate the lane as well as run the offense, and has been called a “plus defender’’ by Holtmann.
In a victory over Cedarville in an exhibition last Wednesday, Washington and Muhammad struggled offensively like they did in the final weeks last season. Muhammad had his shot blocked twice and both were ineffective from three-point range.
Holtmann has raved about Walker’s leadership.
“C.J. is tough and tough-minded,’’ he said. “I think he has a really good understanding of playing to win and what it looks like. He plays with pace and has been part of successful teams. He has a dynamic of getting into the paint and providing an opportunity to attack in transition. He is the right stuff.’’
Walker made sure he was a teammate last season and not the guy in the corner sitting out.
“My teammates believe in me. They have respect for me,’’ he said. “I tried to change myself. Practice was my way to contribute.’’
Expect the Buckeyes to get up the floor a lot faster and the basketball to change hands a lot more quickly in half-court offense.
It will be interesting how Holtmann uses Carton, Walker, Washington, Muhammad and sophomore Justin Ahrens at two spots.
Ahrens, who can play small forward, is behind after sitting out most of August and September with ruptured discs in his back. He did play against Cedarville.
“We have a lot of guys we can put on the court, and a lot of them can put it into the hoop and defend,’’Ahrens said. “Obviously, my role on this team, as always, is to help my team win. Whatever it is (I’ll do it). I feel like I’m a versatile guy and can do a lot of things on the floor. I will feel more comfortable out there.’’
The forwards should be Liddell, 6-8 junior Kyle Young, 6-6 Andre Wesson and 6-5 Musa Jallow. Jallow has been out since October 18 after having arthroscopic surgery on his right ankle.
The most irreplaceable player has to be 6-9, 255-pound junior center Kaleb Wesson. Yes, that’s the correct weight. He went through something like basketball’s version of Army Rangers training during the summer and lost 35 pounds.
Wesson should be focused after the Boston Celtics said, yes, he has a future in the NBA when he entered the draft process to see where he stood.
Teams kept telling him his fitness level was a problem. He averaged 14.6 points and 6.9 rebounds and made 26 three-pointers last season.
Someone at picture day asked Wesson whether the NCAA Tournament was a goal. He sniffed at that.
“That’s not a goal,’’ he said. “I feel like that’s just something we’re working for. As a culture, that’s more of an expectation.’’
Holtmann wants Wesson to shoot the ball, but also put it on the floor to dribble past defenders when he’s on the perimeter.
One reason for that is that the NCAA has moved the three-point arc to the NBA distance of 22-1 ¾ from 20-9.
Ohio State wasn’t all that great from three-point range last season, and that included a team-high 62 from C.J. Jackson. Jackson has used his eligibility.
Washington said the new distance is not a big deal, but he shot 30.6 percent (41 made shots) last season.
“I looked at my shot selection from last year and a lot of the shots were from farther back (than the new line),’’ he said. “It’s not that much farther. We work on NBA three-pointers anyway to develop range.’’
But Holtmann thinks fewer three-pointers will be made and more teams will be slashing to the basket.
“As coaches, we’re all curious about the line, how the line is going to impact the game overall,’’ he said. “I think what you’ll see is a little bit less efficiency. I think you are going to see (shooting) percentages drop a little bit just with the increase in distance. I think you’ll see the floor open up a little. You’ll have to play in tighter spaces because of the open floor and it puts a premium oin guys who can deck the ball.’’