“We'll Go, Really, As Those Guys Lead Us”: Ohio State Turned to Veterans to End Extended Losing Streak and Will Continue to Rely on Them

By Colin Hass-Hill on January 15, 2020 at 12:09 am
CJ Walker

Chris Holtmann doesn’t pretend to know – or care, really – about fashion.

In mid-December, he noted that Jake Diebler, Ohio State’s youngest assistant coach at 33 years old, has a different style than him, though he made sure to note that’s “not saying much.” Typically, his game-day outfits avoid flair in favor of a clean but conventional look.

When his tailor asked him whether he wanted a special jacket to wear ahead of his team’s throwback game in St. John Arena in 2018, he initially declined, though his wife, Lori, was present and said he did. That answer birthed a salmon-colored jacket. The first time he wore it, he had “serious second thoughts” as he left his house and wanted to change into a typical black jacket, but his wife wouldn’t allow that to happen.

The salmon-colored jacket made a second appearance earlier this season when Holtmann again wore it in November for Ohio State’s annual game at St. John Arena. At the time, he had to have thought he could throw it in the back of his closet and forget about it until that time next year.

Then came Tuesday.

“Lori, I think I've got to wear the coat,” Holtmann recalled telling his wife before Ohio State’s 80-68 win against Nebraska.

He knew his players, already in the midst of a four-game losing streak that felt as though it was lasting “forever,” would soon learn about the suspensions of Duane Washington Jr. and Luther Muhammad. Rather than treating the game as if it was any other, he wanted to send them a bit of a message through his wardrobe, donning what he described as the salmon-colored “rally coat.”

“I did, in some ways, I wanted our guys to play bold and free,” Holtmann said. “And listen, for a guy that dresses pretty conservatively, this is as bold and free as I get.”

Whatever works, right? Especially in trying times.

The Buckeyes needed a win. Any win. Sure, they only did what was expected of them, beating one of the worst teams in the Big Ten by double digits, a result won’t turn heads outside of Columbus. But inside the locker room, they felt as though they had to have something positive to happen. Not only had the losses dragged on and the last win, which came against Kentucky on Dec. 21, seemed so long ago, but two key guards had just gotten suspended.

Traversing such adversity, Holtmann didn’t just turn to his jacket but also his veterans. On Monday, he said at a press conference that the team’s upperclassman leaders will “dictate a lot” of what happens moving forward, and Andre Wesson must have been listening.

After a rough opening three minutes against Nebraska, Wesson ended the scoreless drought by banging home three straight 3-pointers, then blocking a shot out of bounds to send the Buckeyes into the game’s first timeout with momentum and a lead they never relinquished.

“It gave a big jolt of confidence. I mean, a big jolt of confidence,” Holtmann said. “Because we didn't have a good first couple of possessions there, to say the least. I think that's the biggest thing. It just gave us a jolt of confidence that, really, you expect – his third shot was really tough – but you expect a senior to do that. You do.”

Holtmann, in that comment, intentionally used the singular version of “senior” rather than making it a plural word. Wesson’s the only one in his last season as a Buckeye. The three other team captains – CJ Walker, Kaleb Wesson and Kyle Young – are juniors.

For somebody with a team-building philosophy reminiscent of that of Jay Wright, Tony Bennett, John Beilein, Tom Izzo, Thad Matta and Matt Painter, having seven underclassmen compared to four healthy upperclassmen – including just one senior – is an uncomfortable spot to be in as a head coach.

“I think old wins,” Holtmann said before the season began at Ohio State media day. “Mature talent wins consistently in college basketball.”

But this roster construction isn’t new to him. As he has said since the offseason, the Buckeyes need to get the most out of their veterans and figure out a way to have the underclassmen “get old.” 

Washington and Muhammad didn’t “get old” quickly enough, as evidenced by their absence from Tuesday’s game. And by suspending them for at least one game – Holtmann called the situation “day-to-day” after the victory – the head coach isn’t playing the short game with their development.

“I don't know that there's a specific message,” Holtmann said. “It's just, like, I'm not coaching for just one game, ever. I'm not ever doing that. I'm not every coaching just to win one game or put our best team on the floor for one game. They're more important to me than that, and it's more important to me than that. And if I ever get to the point to where I coach just for one game, I'm getting out. See ya. Peace out. I'm not doing it. For me, it's bigger than that. It's just bigger than that. It's bigger than that for them. It's bigger than that for me.”

As Muhammad and Washington sort themselves out, DJ Carton and E.J. Liddell continue to find their way as freshmen and Alonzo Gaffney and Justin Ahrens try to carve out some sort of roles, the veterans – even though there are only a few – have to take this team where it wants to go.

Against Nebraska, that happened.

Kaleb Wesson had his seventh double-double, scoring 13 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. Walker scored a season-high 18 points to go along with five rebounds and four assists. Young looked more like himself in his second game back from having his appendix removed, dropping 10 points and grabbing six boards. Andre Wesson hit 4-of-7 shots to score 11 points, including the buckets that gave the Buckeyes an early spark.

To Holtmann, it was the type of collective performance from the upperclassmen that Ohio State needed in order to get out of the losing streak and must happen consistently moving forward as the rest of the team develops in all areas.

“We'll go, really, as those guys lead us,” Holtmann said.

On Tuesday, they led Ohio State to a 12th victory this season.

“It just feels really good to be back on top and win,” Walker said with a chuckle.

It had been quite a while since he could say that.

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