Neither Ohio State nor Rutgers jumped out to a quick start in Wednesday night’s Big Ten matchup, with just two points – a fast-break layup from Kyle Young that was counted as a basket due to goaltending – coming in the opening three minutes.
By the time Andre Wesson scored the next points, which came on a layup three-and-a-half minutes into the game, Kaleb Wesson had already picked up a pair of fouls. The talented big man who averages 17 points and seven rebounds per game has been foul-prone since beginning his college career, so it wasn’t a surprise that he got into early foul trouble. It was, however, a major issue for the Buckeyes, and one that Chris Holtmann doesn’t yet have an answer for.
Rutgers proceeded to go on a 16-3 run, eventually pulling ahead to a double-digit lead before Wesson re-entered the game and scored a layup with 5:37 remaining in the half. He subbed out after just a couple minutes following a near-third foul.
Wesson opened the second half on a vengeance after just two points and four rebounds in the first half, scoring the team’s first 10 points. Jumper. Three-pointer. Free throw. Dunk Layup. He single-handedly gave the Buckeyes their first lead since the fourth minute of the game.
When he didn’t score for a five-minute period after his 10 points, though, Ohio State managed only two points that came on a 3-point shot from Muhammad. In other words, no Buckeye player other than Wesson scored for the first 8:50 of the second half. And after Muhammad’s make, no one else other than Wesson scored for the next 3:09.
Ohio State, faced with Rutgers’ massive size advantage across the floor, couldn’t penetrate the zone defense and couldn’t find enough offense, eventually losing 64-61. The Buckeyes even out-rebounded the Scarlet Knights, pulling down 35 rebounds including 13 offensive boards, yet couldn’t pull out the victory.
Chris Holtmann fully understands the problem, and there’s not much he can do.
“Obviously, he's a big part of what we're doing, primarily offensively,” Holtmann said in his post-game radio interview. “We can have some scoring droughts without him in the game, and we did. We did not handle those stretches. But, you know, he still played in the first half. Perhaps it took him a little bit out of rhythm, but that wasn't the reason we lost. They beat us to way more balls. That was the difference.”
Ohio State isn’t completely incompetent when Wesson isn’t in the game.
At the end of the first half, the Buckeyes went on an 11-0 run that featured points from C.J. Jackson, Duane Washington Jr., Andre Wesson and Luther Muhammad. Jackson and Keyshawn Woods have both heated up in key moments this season, and Washington has a solid jump shot, though he has cooled off lately.
No one other than Wesson, though, has shown enough consistency to take pressure off the big man. Undoubtedly, future opponents watched what happened to Ohio State’s offense when it both went against zone and couldn’t rely on Wesson due to foul trouble, and they’ll focus on those areas of perceived weakness.
So, how does this team avoid scoring droughts like it faced on Wednesday?
“I don't know,” Holtmann said. “We'll have to look at it. I don't know. I'll have to take a look at it, and we'll have to see if we can put some guys in different positions. We had some quality looks tonight that we just missed. Give them credit, too. Their defense is good.”
Simply put, Ohio State isn’t truly built to score constantly. Easy answers aren’t plentiful.
These types of scoring nights, especially against teams with size, aren’t completely unexpected. Assistant coach Mike Schrage called scoring the biggest question entering the season, and Holtmann was hopeful but not overly confident about getting consistent points.
When Wesson gets into foul trouble and has to get taken out of the game, the frontcourt situation immediately becomes dire. Young and Andre Wesson are the only other forwards who typically play much, with Jaedon LeDee only earning small, inconsistent playing time. Against Rutgers’ big lineup, Holtmann was forced to play LeDee in the first half.
Ohio State has reinforcements on the way. Five-star point guard D.J. Carton will certainly help with scoring next year. Four-star forwards Alonzo Gaffney and E.J. Liddell can’t get to Columbus soon enough for the Buckeyes.
But this season, Holtmann has to simply ride it out with who he has and maximize the talent on his team, just like he did last season.
He needs Wesson to continue to score at a high level. But more than that, the secondary scorers – Jackson, Muhammad, Washington and Woods – who have each flashed potential, must perform more efficiently on a consistent basis.