Jay Wright had quite the selection when digging back into the archives, looking at footage from years prior.
Having done battle with Chris Holtmann-coached Butler teams six times over the course of three years, the Villanova head coach opted to watch some of those games when preparing for his team’s matchup with Ohio State on Wednesday night. He didn’t need too much of a reminder, though, given how many nights they squared off in the Big East.
After watching those games and then comparing them to what he saw in his team’s 76-51 loss to the Buckeyes on Wednesday, Wright said he saw a similar style of play. It reminded him of the “good, solid physical defense” at Butler.
“A lot of the same concepts,” Wright said. “I thought their defensive discipline was very similar. Just a little bit bigger, longer, more athletic.”
Holtmann’s personnel at Ohio State, though, felt different – especially at center.
“I think (Kaleb) Wesson. Wesson was a big difference,” Wright said.
A 6-foot-9, 255-pound difference.
The production from the big man in the middle hasn’t come in the ways many might have expected after watching him as the sole offensive focal point last year.
In the 25-point beatdown of the Wildcats, Wesson scored 10 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, giving him his second double-double in a row and third double-digit rebound game in a row for the first time in his career. Wesson also had a career-high four blocks.
He’s the key to the offense but in a different way than he was a year ago. The Buckeyes needed him to do everything last year: Score, rebound, score, defend the post, score, score some more. That has changed this season. Through three games, despite averaging 14.6 points per game a year ago, Wesson hasn’t put up more than 13 points in a single game. Ohio State hasn’t had to force the ball to him, both due to his ability to play further outside and the increased talent in the backcourt, allowing the big man to thrive.
“Kaleb Wesson's playing as good as I've ever seen him play,” Holtmann said after the first win against a ranked team of the season. “And that's a credit to him on both ends. So if you have a player that's gifted and talented playing like he's playing, it elevates other people too.”
On Wednesday, that materialized in an early barrage from beyond the arc.
Duane Washington Jr. made the first two shots of the game, both from 3-point range, and CJ Walker hit a subsequent triple, forcing Wright to call a timeout after less than 90 seconds. The points just kept coming in a way that Holtmann said he has only seen twice or three times in his career.
As his team turned a 9-0 lead into a 36-10 lead within 10 minutes, Holtmann says he just tried to get out of the way. When reflecting on how the offensive explosion happened, though, he came back to Wesson.
“Having Kaleb opens up the opportunity from the 3-point line as they game prep,” Holtmann said. “And I thought we saw that with them. I think they were prepping to really take away Kaleb, and it did open up some things for Duane. And he got going there, and then he got going in transition.”
What has helped Wesson this year, which he didn’t have last year, is a cadre of complementary players who can seemingly come out of nowhere to impact games significantly.
In the season opener against Cincinnati, it was Kyle Young, who led the Buckeyes in scoring for the first time in his career with 14 points. DJ Carton added nine points in his debut, too, scoring five points in a row during a second-half run.
The next game, a win against UMass Lowell, five players finished in double figures. Carton had 13 points and four assists. Luther Muhammad and Washington drew tough defensive matchups on the wing and held the opponent’s two most effective scorers to 25 combined points.
On Wednesday, Ohio State had contributions from just about everybody. Walker put together his best game as a Buckeye, putting up 10 points with seven assists and just one turnover. Carton had 11 points, five assists and five rebounds. Young had a quiet eight points and seven rebounds. Washington led the team with 14 points, and Muhammad made 4-of-5 shots, scoring 11 points.
“I think we've certainly got more capability and more versatility in some ways that we were lacking last year,” Holtmann said.
The Buckeyes got 3-point shooting out of Washington, Muhammad and E.J. Liddell, who each made at least two triples. They got transition offense, playmaking and penetration out of Carton and Walker, who combined for 12 assists and three turnovers. They got rebounding from Kaleb Wesson and Young, who had a combined 18 boards.
Plus, importantly, Ohio State put together a third performance of stifling defense in a row, holding Villanova to 31 percent shooting with 12 turnovers compared to 10 assists. Even without Andre Wesson, Villanova couldn’t do much.
On the inside, Kaleb Wesson controlled the paint, playing 34 minutes and blocking four shots without picking up a single foul. He hadn’t played a game without a foul since a win versus Illinois on Feb. 4.
“I'm certainly not trying to push Kaleb out of our program,” Holtmann said. “But if I'm at the next level, I look at that and say, ‘Hey, he's really moving well. He's really committed on that end.’”
At this point, everything for the Buckeyes has clicked. Through three games, they’ve shot 50 percent from the field and 41.8 percent from 3-point range, and they’ve held their opponents to 32.2 percent shooting.
To Holtmann, though, perspective is needed. Ohio State remains at the beginning of a months-long journey.
“My college coach said, 'You really learn about a team when you lose,’” Holtmann said. “We've got a lot of learning to do about this group here as we move forward.”
He’s right. There’s a lot more to learn and many, many more games to be played.
But you know what else is a learning opportunity? When you beat the No. 10-ranked team in the country by 25 points.