When South Carolina State head coach Murray Garvin saw Kaleb Wesson warm up, he knew the Bulldogs might be in for a long night.
The 6-foot-9, 270-pound center possessed a package of size, post skills and touch from the outside that no one on his team had. South Carolina State has a Alex Taylor, a similarly sized 6-foot-9, 200-pound center who doubles as the right tackle on the school’s football team, but he’s not as skilled as Wesson.
It didn’t take long for Garvin’s worries to come to fruition. Just 13 seconds into the game, he drew a foul and hit a pair of free throws. Less than 30 seconds later, Wesson drilled a 3-pointer. He said he thought he “had it going early.”
“I thought Kaleb really set the tone with his aggressiveness offensively and pursuing the ball,” Chris Holtmann said after Ohio State's 89-61 win. “I thought he pursued the ball pretty well, as well.”
“It's almost like Shaq in the late 90s where he was playing and everybody just fouled him” – South Carolina State coach Murray Garvin
Wesson tore up South Carolina State’s defense, forcing the Bulldogs to play physically against him in the post, but also pulling out the defense to the 3-point arc, which opened up the offense.
By the end of the first half, Wesson had 17 points, his most ever in a half and two points from his career high in a game. South Carolina State had no answer for him inside, where the starting center drew 12 fouls.
“It's almost like Shaq in the late 90s where he was playing and everybody just fouled him,” Garvin said.
It’s not a strategy that worked particularly well, but one that South Carolina State had to employ when Wesson continued to hurt them from the inside. He also went 3-for-4 from beyond the arc. He had never hit more than one 3-pointer in a game and made four his entire freshman season. Holtmann said Wesson was “hunting” for 3s and applauded his aggressiveness shooting from deep.
Both Wesson and Ohio State’s coaches had talked up the center’s readiness to hit triples with consistency, but in the first three game of this season, he had two made 3-pointers on six attempts. He stepped into four 3-point attempts on Sunday without much hesitation.
“Coach didn't really say anything to me. I feel like he kind of gave me the green light to shoot that amount of 3s," Wesson said. "He told me he wanted me to shoot a little bit more this year. So, I feel like that was kind of in the gameplan."
South Carolina State, one of the lowest rated teams in the country by KenPom, had no answer to his inside-outside game. When Wesson got hot, he left the Bulldogs at a loss.
“It makes a difficult matchup,” Garvin said. “You're just not used to seeing a guy that can stretch the floor like than and then also dominate you in the paint. The game has moved to more face-up four men instead of back-to-the-basket fives. He has a rare combination of being able to do both, and I think with more agility training and strength and conditioning, I just think his game can go to another level eventually.”
In just 21 minutes, Wesson scored 18 points. He made 4-of-7 shots and went 7-for-11 from the free-throw line. It was his most productive game of the season.
In order for Ohio State to maximize itself on offense, Wesson must continue to put opponents in similarly unflattering positions. Prior to the season, assistant coach Terry Johnson said Wesson had worked to improve as the focal point of the offense. On Sunday, he thrived in the role, averaging nearly a point per minute and creating openings for teammates.
“I think Wesson was the matchup that we didn't have any answer for, and I give Ohio State credit, they recognized that and they kept going to the well, and that well didn't run dry,” Garvin said.
Moving forward, it’ll be important for Wesson to show similar dominance against teams with more size and talent.
“He's been trapped or double teamed in some way every game, but certainly in the first three games. So, he's got to continue to make the right play if teams are going to throw two bodies at him on his catches,” Holtmann said. “But he did a good job kind of slipping out of some screens and setting some and popping and making the right read, and we've really challenged him to continue to do that, playing on the perimeter some.”