Chris Holtmann doesn't want Kaleb Wesson to do anything out of the ordinary in his return from a three-game suspension. Nothing extra.
"He's got to be Kaleb," Holtmann said on Tuesday. "He's just got to be Kaleb."
The Buckeyes missed that version of Kaleb – a lot. They missed all of the 14.6 points and 6.7 rebounds he averaged. They missed his presence on offense, his ability to pull defenders away from shooters surrounding him, his interior passing and his scoring from the paint. Most of all, as Holtmann harped on the past couple weeks, Ohio State missed his defense, for the team viewed him as the anchor.
Finally, two weeks after the program announced Wesson's suspension, he'll be back on the court for the Buckeyes against Indiana in the Big Ten tournament on Thursday.
“No caffeine for the next three days, for sure, for him,” Holtmann joked on Tuesday.
It's hard to overstate how poorly the team looked without Kaleb Wesson on the court until the final seven minutes of the three-game stretch to end the regular season.
Purdue rocked the Buckeyes, winning by 35 points in a game that felt over well before halftime. Would Wesson have changed the outcome? No chance. Not with the Boilermakers hitting seemingly every shot that left their hands. But he would have improved the interior defense and opened up the offense, which was shut down due to not having anyone who could score in the post or drive to the lane, allowing Purdue to stay locked in on defending Ohio State's spot-up shooters.
Northwestern followed up four days later by inviting the Wesson-less Buckeyes to Evanston, Illinois, proceeding to whoop them by 18 points. The Wildcats had only one players on the team who shot at least 40 percent from the field, but they hit 44.8 percent of their shots against Ohio State and held the Buckeyes to 26.6 percent shooting. Wesson, who scored 22 points in the first meeting between the teams just a couple weeks earlier, might have swung that game.
Wisconsin needed overtime to beat Ohio State, which put together a miraculous 23-point comeback to tie the game with less than a minute remaining. It's hard to know what would have happened in the final seven minutes of that game if Wesson were on the court, but he absolutely would have aided the team in the first half when the Buckeyes missed their first 11 shots and entered halftime with just 16 points.
“We did try to tweak and change, and obviously we played without him for portions of this season for sure,” Holtmann said on Sunday’s Big Ten basketball teleconference. “I think as much as anything it's the gameplanning that teams can go into attacking you differently defensively when they know he's not going to be on the floor. They're obviously more attached to shooters, and different guys get more attention.
“And I think we noticed that for sure. I'm not sure we always handled that quite as well as we could have.”
A quick version of how Wesson's absence affected the past three games? Ohio State might not be in what essentially could be a play-in game for an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament if Wesson had not been suspended for three games due to a violation of athletic department policy. Instead, there's a chance it might have locked up a bid.
But they're in this position now, and Holtmann and the coaches have to figure out how best to reintegrate him into the lineup when Ohio State opens the Big Ten tournament against Indiana on Thursday.
“I've never been in a situation, whether it's an injury or suspension, never been in a situation where you lose a guy and then he comes back right for the conference tournament,” Holtmann said. “It's just kind of a unique situation. So I don't really have a playbook for kind of what that's going to look like other than he's just got to be Kaleb. He's got to find a way to impact the game on both ends. I think it's important for him and for us to not have a false sense of, 'OK, we know how good Indiana is, now that Kaleb is back everything is going to be OK.' We've got to play well, and Kaleb has to help his team play well now that he's back. And that's the bottom line.”
Though Wesson has been suspended for the past two weeks, Holtmann hasn't treated him any differently.
The 6-foot-9, 270-pound big man traveled with the team. He sat on the bench. The only visceral difference was him wearing a sweatsuit to games instead of shorts and a jersey. Wesson practiced with the teams, though Holtmann said he was on the scout team, and worked out twice a day. Instead of playing in the games, Wesson had mandatory workouts with strength and conditioning coach Quadrian Banks in the mornings during his suspension, along with post-practice conditioning.
“We've obviously scaled back on that given the fact that we play on Thursday,” Holtmann said. “But we'll see. There's nothing we can really do to replicate fully the game pace, the game speed. So I do think wind may be a concern; it's something I'm going to try to monitor closely. And he's going to have to play through a little bit of it too. He's going to play through some fatigue.”
Fatigued or not, Wesson will have a massive role in whether or not Ohio State can lay claim to an at-large bid.
His absence played a significant role in the Buckeyes finding themselves in this situation, but he could have an equally large part in getting them in the NCAA tournament with a vintage performance versus the streaking Hoosiers on Thursday.