Villanova hasn’t played a game in five days. Not since beating Army, 97-54, to open the season. And as Chris Holtmann learned after Ohio State’s 76-56 win against UMass Lowell on Sunday, the 10th-ranked Wildcats won’t play again until they head to Columbus.
“Do they play anybody between Army and (us)?” Holtmann asked reporters in the postgame press conference.
Nope, they won’t. Their players will head to Columbus with eight days of rest, and their coaches will have eight days of preparation.
“Goodness gracious,” Holtmann said. “Good to give Jay a few more days to prepare. A guy that's won two national championships in the last five years.”
Having spent a few years on the sideline as Butler’s head coach, Holtmann and Villanova coach Jay Wright know each other well. On Sunday, Holtmann called Wright one of the two or three best coaches in the country, and it’s hard to dispute that claim.
The Wildcats had what can accurately described as a down year in 2018-19. They finished with their worst record in the past six seasons, but that 26-10 mark was still good enough to win the Big East regular season title, earn a No. 1 seed in the conference tournament and then win that tournament. Wright will bring another loaded Villanova team to Columbus for a game on Wednesday that Holtmann believes will be a “great challenge” for the Buckeyes.
“I think that's why you want to play games like that early,” Holtmann said. “You just don't know. Like I can't sit here and tell you I know exactly how we're going to respond with the positions that that group puts you in.”
He has, however, seen his team respond in an eight-point win over Cincinnati on Wednesday and a 20-point win versus UMass Lowell on Sunday.
Even against an overmatched River Hawks team that finished sub-.500 last year and has one player taller than 6-foot-9, early signs of a young, developing team with plenty of still-maturing talent appeared. It’s a team that could turn into a real problem in the Big Ten by the time spring rolls around, provided its players maintain steady growth.
Those indications came in many forms, including the potential shown by the freshmen and consistency the sophomores exhibited. But nobody, at the moment, is playing better than Kaleb Wesson.
In Ohio State's first two games, Wesson hasn’t yet scored as many points as he averaged – 14.6 – last season. He had eight points versus the Bearcats followed by 13 points in Sunday’s game. But he grabbed at least 11 rebounds and had a block in both games, adding five assists against the River Hawks.
“The way he's playing the game right now is tremendous,” Holtmann said. “When you're as talented as he is and used to scoring the ball, guys can get thirsty, they can force things, they can play out of character. He's mature enough to understand that that's not the right way to play.”
Two days ago, Holtmann said Wesson’s performance against Cincinnati was his most complete as a Buckeye. There’s now an argument to be made – at least on the stat sheet – that he had an even more complete game versus the River Hawks.
Even though Wesson had only 13 points in a 20-point win, Holtmann still believes his team is relying a bit too much on the big man.
“I think we see when he comes out of the lineup, we're still too young and still growing into roles where he's still very, very critical for us,” Holtmann said. “If he were to get into foul trouble, it really impacts us. I think as the season goes, hopefully if we can grow as a group, and that's sophomores, freshmen, hopefully we can get to that point. But right now, I think we're still highly, highly dependent on him. And that's not a bad thing. I'm just saying I think we've got to continue to grow as a group.”
Part of that growth needs to come from DJ Carton, a freshman point guard who has already made himself into one of Ohio State’s go-to weapons.
Carton had 13 points with four assists and one turnover in 22 minutes against the River Hawks. Two of his assists came with no-look passes on subsequent possessions, with one happening in transition.
“I've never coached a guy with his burst,” Holtmann said. “He's got the best 0-to-60 I've coached.”
He might also have one of the best 0-to-60’s that UMass Lowell coach Pat Duquette has ever coached against.
“I didn't expect him to be that good,” Duquette said.
Ohio State never really found a secondary scorer to which it could consistently turn if Wesson went cold or got into foul trouble last year. Carton could be the answer to that question this season, provided he continues on this path.
Beyond Carton, a potential star, the Buckeyes have a cadre of improved role players.
Kyle Young has clearly taken a step or two, as evidenced by his willingness to drive the ball. For just the second time in his career, he has back-to-back games with at least 10 points.
Sophomore guards Duane Washington Jr. and Luther Muhammad had the two most important defensive matchups in Sunday's game, and they held their own. On offense, Muhammad had 11 points and three assists, and Washington had eight points including a pair of 3-pointers.
“I also thought Luther and Duane did some good things today in terms of playing the right way, moving and sharing the ball,” Holtmann said. “That's got to be a consistent theme for us.”
Andre Wesson didn’t play against UMass Lowell due to an eye injury, but he’s somebody else who can impact the game on both ends. He was the Buckeyes' best 3-point shooter in the preseason, Holtmann said.
CJ Walker has had an up-and-down first two games, which Holtmann attributed to “rust.” Justin Ahrens, too, is still physically recovering from an offseason back injury, though he played 18 scoreless minutes on Sunday.
E.J. Liddell had four points, five rebounds and a pair of blocks on Sunday. Alonzo Gaffney made his Ohio State debut versus the River Hawks, scoring 10 points and grabbing eight rebounds but committing three turnovers.
“He's got to make better decisions, take better care of the ball,” Holtmann said of Gaffney. He said the coaches have noticed that issue in the past month and a half.
It’s dangerous to take too much of anything out of an early November game against an overmatched, undersized mid-major opponent. And with such a young team, it’s true that there are an abundance of unanswered questions and different outcomes for this season.
What happens if Carton turns it over too much? What if Kaleb Wesson’s weight loss isn’t maintained? What if Washington and Muhammad aren’t consistent? What about wing depth? What about Ahrens’ defense? What if Gaffney’s turnover problem persists? What happens if Young’s offense isn’t sustainable? What about Walker’s turnovers?
All those questions are valid. But unlike at some points last season, we can see the direction. See signs of what everything might look like in the spring after months of development.
The Buckeyes offered a glimpse of what they could be on Sunday. Undoubtedly, we’ll all know more about them after Wednesday’s game. Wright will make sure of that, which Holtmann knows all too well.