Chris Holtmann furiously waved both of his hands together in the air like Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk.
No, he wasn’t trying to will an airborne baseball to the right of the left-field foul pole in the 1975 American League Championship Series. He just wanted Ohio State to play some defense and, after increasingly struggling to do so for months, shut down easy shots from behind the 3-point arc.
The flailing worked for Fisk 45 years ago, and it worked for Holtmann on Saturday.
Moments after Holtmann called for his guards to pressure the Boilermakers’ backcourt so as not to allow any space, CJ Walker stole the ball and raced down the court. He finished the transition opportunity with a layup on which Purdue was called for goaltending, giving Ohio State a 15-6 lead less than six minutes after the tip.
That single play in the Buckeyes’ 68-52 defeat of Purdue at the Schottenstein Center both helped set the tone and was a microcosm of what turned into statistically their most effective defensive performance of the Big Ten slate. They held the Boilermakers to the worst effective-field goal percentage (38.9), 3-point percentage (20), adjusted offensive efficiency (71.9), points per possession (0.77) and turnover rate (23.7) of any in-conference opponent this season.
“I thought our defense was as good and as sound as we've played all year,” Holtmann said. “(Purdue is) a little bit different when they play at home versus on the road in a lot of ways. Offensively, their numbers are a little bit different, but still they're very difficult to guard. Trevion Williams is a load inside. I thought our defensive consistency was good. Like I said, Purdue puts their players in great positions and they make it difficult to guard.”
Perhaps most notably, the Buckeyes held Purdue to only four made 3-pointers, the fewest from any opponent since Southeast Missouri State went 2-for-11 in November. That’s been a sore spot that has only gotten worse, landing them at the bottom of the Big Ten in opponent 3-point percentage.
Purdue didn’t have an abundance of high-percentage outside shooters, but four rotation players have hit better than 35 percent from 3-point range this season. The game plan, Luther Muhammad later said, was to pressure ball-handlers’ ability to drive while simultaneously guarding the 3-point arc.
“We knew it was going to be a fight from start to finish,” Muhammad said. “We knew to come out to play hard, play together. And our coach was just hitting on just competing and executing.”
Holtmann knows better than to assume everything defensively has been fixed in a single mid-February home game. Yet for a team that has sneakily been more efficient offensively than defensively throughout Big Ten play, it was a welcome sign in Columbus.
This Ohio State roster, as currently constructed, isn’t built to win consistently with overwhelming offense.
Like any team, it has its positives on that end, leading to a No. 2 ranking in the Big Ten in adjusted offensive efficiency. Kaleb Wesson averages nearly a double-double and offers offensive versatility as a stretch center. Duane Washington Jr. can score at multiple levels. Andre Wesson and Justin Ahrens are knock-down shooters. Kyle Young gets on the offense glass and makes the quintessential hustle plays. CJ Walker has had a solid assist-to-turnover ratio recently. Luther Muhammad has shown an ability to hit outside shots.
But the Buckeyes’ backbone – especially as the postseason nears – has to be on the defensive end of the court. Early in the season, it was on point, which is when they still rank No. 14 overall in adjusted defensive efficiency.
For the past a couple months, though, when offensive struggles became more pervasive, the defense was no longer the safety net. As Ohio State’s offense spurted, so too did its defense. Opponents began to convert offensive droughts into scoring opportunities.
On Saturday, though, that didn’t happen.
The Buckeyes had 10 first-half turnovers yet held Purdue to just 20 points in the opening 20 minutes. After a 3-pointer from Justin Ahrens gave them a 12-point lead with 6:55 remaining before halftime, they went on a scoring drought of more than five minutes. While recent opponents have often closed gaps or extended their own leads when Ohio State has had those kind of droughts, Purdue managed only six points during that stretch and never cut the lead below six points.
Unlike on Wednesday against Rutgers, when a 20-point lead with 13 minutes remaining dwindled to a three-point advantage with less than a minute remaining, Purdue’s deficit never closed to fewer than nine points in the second half.
“That's a mindset thing. That's a toughness thing,” Holtmann said. “If you're going to waver on that end because that's tied to your offense, then you are one soft group, and we weren't today.”
As a freshman in 2017-18, Kaleb Wesson often let his offense affect all aspects of his game. Holtmann, remembering those moments, told his team of them in the locker room after the game with the idea that each of them have to “move forward” from poor plays.
At times in recent months, both Holtmann and his players have wondered aloud whether certain defensive errors were connected to – or fallout from – offensive issues. That can’t happen in March or April, and it didn’t happen on Saturday.
Progress. But not a finished product.
When asked whether he thinks he’s seen maturity out of a team that has more underclassmen than upperclassmen and just one senior, Holtmann said, “We're better than we were,” before taking a long pause and following up with, “Let's see how we are on the road.”
He won’t have to wait long to find out.
The Hawkeyes await in Iowa City on Thursday, and they’re ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten in both adjusted offensive efficiency and effective field-goal percentage. If Ohio State ends up needing to fall back on its defense in a few days, we’ll get a better idea of just how much improvement has really been made.