When Chris Holtmann sat down to discuss Ohio State’s season-opening 64-56 win against Cincinnati, he called it a “good old-fashioned rock fight.”
And then he learned about Virginia beating Syracuse by 14 points, with neither team even reaching 50 points, also on Wednesday night.
“48-34? Wow. I feel great right now. I feel great,” a disbelieving Holtmann said with a smile. “All the fans that watched, you saw an offensive explosion compared to that. I don't want to hear any complaining.”
He doesn’t have to worry. Nobody who saw that game is complaining. Not Jerry Lucas, who watched the game from the front row. Not Gene Smith, in attendance to see the start of the third season for the head coach he gave an eight-year, eight-figure contract to in 2017. And not the usher who walked up to Holtmann after pregame shootaround to tell him he was a student who has a sore memory of when the Bearcats beat the Buckeyes in in 1961 and 1962.
For the second year in a row, Ohio State opened its season by beating Cincinnati, with the game coincidentally ending with the same final score as it did a year ago.
“Proud of this first win. Got to find a way, obviously, to grow and be a lot better. I'm sure it wasn't aesthetically pleasing to people,” Holtmann said, taking a dramatic pause, “but I don't really care.”
Nor should he.
Yes, the Buckeyes left Wednesday with plenty of areas that need improvement. The nearly eight-minute scoreless stretch to open the game wasn’t pretty, and neither were the four turnovers apiece by DJ Carton and CJ Walker. But a variety of issues pop up after every single season opener, and nobody expected flawlessness from a team that Holtmann has consistently described as the youngest he has ever coached.
What mattered most was the result: A win. A victory that’ll be praised when the NCAA tournament selection committee evaluates the Buckeyes many months from now, and one that came in what Holtmann called the most physical season opener he has ever coached.
“Just being able to grind out that win is something a lot of teams can't do,” Kaleb Wesson said. “And that feeling, doing it with a young group like we've got, a grind-it-out game, everybody's got bumps and bruises, you cheer about that.”
Arguably the most impressive part of the game, Holtmann thought, and what he believes allowed Ohio State to come back from a seven-point halftime deficit was a completely altered offense.
At the break after 20 minutes, the Buckeyes retreated into the locker room, and Holtmann tossed out the game plan that the coaches had spent so long preparing. Cincinnati was bothering Ohio State so much with its on-ball pressure, hands in passing lanes and physicality that Holtmann turned to what he said was “kind of a variation of really something we hadn't run all year.”
“I thought our guys were great,” Holtmann said. “They just played off instincts and really responded.”
Ohio State put Kaleb Wesson’s versatility as an offensive player at the forefront, putting Cincinnati in uncomfortable defensive positions that head coach John Brannen said doomed the Bearcats.
What was a seven-point deficit at halftime for the Buckeyes turned into a four-point lead less than seven minutes into the second half. Once Walker gave them the advantage with a pair of free throws just 3:05 into the latter 20-minute period, Ohio State didn’t trail for the remainder of the game.
“I thought our guys' ability to adjust to doing some things differently said a lot about them,” Holtmann said.
Unexpectedly spearheading Ohio State during the ugliest portions of the game was Kyle Young, a junior who had only reached double figures in points four times and had never grabbed more than eight boards in a game.
He scored 14 points and 13 rebounds to lead the Buckeyes in both categories for the first time in his career. When they seemingly couldn’t score at the beginning of the game, Young had the season’s first points with a dunk in transition that caused the crowd at the Schottenstein Center to go ballistic. In his team’s abysmal first half, Young did his best to keep the Buckeyes close by putting up 10 of his team’s 19 points and grabbing eight rebounds. Those hustle and effort plays allowed his team to adjust at halftime and mount a comeback. Without those contributions, the result would’ve likely been different.
How Young affected the game shouldn’t have surprised anybody. Wesson described him as a “high-energy guy” who does the “dirty work,” which he showed the previous two years. But Young had never even had a double-double before Wednesday.
“This is his kind of a game where he could really impact it,” Holtmann said. “He's healthy, and I think that really matters with a guy who his legs are so important to him. Kyle's got one thing on his mind when he plays, and that is Ohio State winning. That's the only thing that matters to him. That's true of all of our guys, but I think you see particularly in a game against an in-state rival, that means something to him.”
Young, along with Walker and the Wesson brothers, is part of a leadership core that Holtmann called “really good” against Cincinnati. Against one of the most physical teams on the non-conference schedule, the Buckeyes not only didn’t fold, they gave it right back to their in-state foe.
Andre Wesson and Luther Muhammad both defended reigning American Athletic Conference player of the year Jarron Cumberland, allowing him to make just 4-of-13 shots for 13 points in 32 minutes, though the elder Wesson left the game with about seven minutes remaining due to an eye injury.
“Games like this, coach says heart. It tests your heart,” Kaleb Wesson said. “You've got guys out there. Dre got a cut on his eye. People getting their mouth busted open. Just got to find a way to win.”
And they did, all while enduring a familiar “rock fight.”