ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Kaleb Wesson stood outside the visiting locker room at Crisler Arena with an inch-long cut on his left cheek and a finger-length gash at the base of his neck that he says stemmed from a transition sequence on Tuesday night. A few feet to his left was Kyle Young, wearing a No. 50 jersey without his name on the back because Michigan’s Zavier Simpson had ripped his own No. 25 jersey in the final minutes.
The battle scars and alternate jersey served as unforeseen souvenirs from a 61-58 victory that Ohio State had secured only 10 minutes beforehand. They also represented a couple of the remnants the Buckeyes can take from a 40-minute tussle so physical that Wesson struggled to describe it.
“Like, I need words? I don't know if I can put that into words,” Wesson said, breaking out a giant smile. “My boy got his jersey ripped off. I got scratched by a saber tooth. Like, shit.”
Duane Washington Jr., standing directly to Wesson’s left, jumped into the conversation.
“It was a tough one,” he said. “We knew it was a Big Ten road game. Especially here, the Team Up North. We knew it was going to be a battle. It's a rivalry for both of us. We knew it was going to be a very physical game going into it.”
If two cuts and a replacement jersey are the sacrifices of extending a winning streak and putting what happened in January further in the rear-view mirror, Ohio State will do that deal any day of the week.
Only a couple weeks ago, Chris Holtmann’s team found itself mired in an abysmal first month of the calendar year for the second straight season. A loss to West Virginia on Dec. 29 sparked a four-game losing streak that included a four-point home loss to Wisconsin. The Buckeyes ended the downslide by beating Nebraska, but they followed that up by dropping games to Penn State and Minnesota. Suspensions to Luther Muhammad and Washington and various minor injuries compounded a dismal few weeks.
In the past three games, Ohio State has finally begun to see the light.
A 12-point road win against Northwestern to end January. A nine-point home victory versus Indiana six days later. On Tuesday, a three-point win at Michigan.
“I think it says something about the character of the group,” Holtmann said. “I think it says something about their resolve. It says something to the leadership we have in there from a couple of the older guys. I've seen progress with our guys in the last couple weeks.”
On Tuesday, in what was unequivocally their most important Big Ten road win of a tumultuous season, the Buckeyes displayed that growth across the board.
Less than two weeks ago in the loss to Minnesota, Ohio State ran a late-game play to get Washington the ball on a backdoor cut, but the Gophers shut it down and the sophomore guard instead found an open Wesson who missed a 3-pointer with 16 seconds remaining that would have broken a tie and given his team the lead. Seconds later, Marcus Carr buried the Buckeyes, handing them their sixth loss in seven games.
Against Michigan, quite literally the opposite happened.
Ohio State ran an action to get Wesson the ball in the post. Earlier, Holtmann said, the play led to a bucket from Wesson. At that moment, though, Wesson couldn’t get position and instead passed to an open Washington who drained a triple that gave Ohio State a one-point lead with 54 seconds left.
“That's kind of how you win games,” Holtmann said. “If you can get a couple stops and have plays like that.”
Twenty one seconds later, Young hit a pair of free throws to turn a one-point deficit into a one-point advantage.
“That's probably the loudest that place has ever got – for me shooting free throws, anyway,” Young said.
CJ Walker, a captain and veteran leader who had missed all six of his shots from the field, followed Young to the stripe 16 seconds later. He drilled back-to-back free throws, pulling his team ahead by three points. A missed 3-pointer from Eli Brooks in the final minute sealed the result.
Could Ohio State have made those shots a few weeks ago? To Washington, who’s perpetually looking forward, it’s not worthy of even pondering. But based on what happened against Wisconsin and Minnesota, the answer might be yes.
“We've grown a lot in the past couple weeks,” Young said.
As a team, Ohio State also appeared tougher – both physically and mentally – than it was even just a month ago.
It made clutch shots and won arguably the most physical game it has played this season. Wesson won the post matchup with 7-foot-1 center Jon Teske. E.J. Liddell had a pair of blocks and a nice finish at the rim in the second half. Young made some hustle plays, finishing with 12 points and five rebounds.
A couple weeks ago, after his team lost to Penn State, Holtmann publicly wondered about that aspect of his team’s game. Toughness seemed lacking to him, even though it was what Young had previously said should be the identity of the Buckeyes.
“We've seen some growth in that area dating back before Minnesota,” Holtmann said. “We didn't see results in that particular game. But I think we've taken slow, steady growth in that area.”
For the majority of the 40 minutes – and especially the first half – Wesson put together quite possibly the best all-around performance of his entire career.
He scored both inside and outside, ending with 23 points while making 9-of-14 shots from the field and three 3-pointers. He held Teske to three points on 1-of-7 shooting. He grabbed 12 rebounds and tossed three assists in 35 minutes on the court. He also didn’t turn the ball over for the second game in a row, marking the first time in 44 games that he has played consecutive games without turnovers.
Whatever Ohio State needed, Wesson did it.
“Kaleb today, I think, was who he is and that is one of the best bigs in the country,” Holtmann said. “Sometimes he can have games where he struggles, just like everybody else. But he played like one of the best big men in the country.”
Nobody should go overboard with what happened on Tuesday. This remains a team with notable flaws that need improvement – transition offense, free-throw rate, secondary scorers, 3-point defense – and a sub-.500 conference record.
But in the three-point win against Michigan that follows two other victories, Ohio State showed legitimate signs of growth from what led to six losses in seven games last month. For a team that had some fans wondering whether or not it would even make the NCAA tournament after earning a No. 2 ranking in December, that matters.
“I don't think the tough times are over. Not in this league,” Holtmann said. “It's just about how we're playing. I think we're executing and playing steps better in certain areas. I do.”