As Chris Holtmann made his return walk across the Schottenstein Center court after his postgame interview with CBS, he turned around, raised his arms, bent his knees, balled up his fists and yelled with excitement before redirecting himself back toward his bench and down the tunnel to celebrate with his team.
A half-hour later, seated in front of a larger group of reporters and television cameras than usual, Luther Muhammad and Kaleb Wesson did their best to talk about No. 25 Ohio State’s 79-72 home win against No. 7 Maryland as if it was any other game. Nothing that happened on Sunday evening, Wesson said, surprised anybody in the locker room.
“I don't know if we was listening to what the world was saying about us,” Wesson said. “It's always here or there with us. There's always people saying we're that good, we're that bad.
To Wesson and Muhammad, the way they talked, it was just another victory.
But, no. This represented more.
This top-10 win came against the highest-ranked team the Buckeyes have beaten all season, should clinch an NCAA tournament bid with a couple weeks left in the regular season, gets them back to .500 in the Big Ten and proves they still can defeat top-level teams after a rocky January and a February that hadn't yet included a top-25 win.
Possibly most importantly, Sunday’s result also showed somewhat of a blueprint that they can use to win in March. What Ohio State did against Maryland can win the team games in the postseason.
“It's a step forward,” Chris Holtmann said. “I think the real question will be how do we respond to this going on the road where we've not performed the last couple games, and what's going to be our response in practice. Are we going to somehow be complacent with this particular result, or are we going to have a good response in practice? I think that's really going to test the maturity of our group. We've had great wins this year. This is certainly one of them, because we have tremendous respect for Maryland, their talent, how well they're coached.”
This team’s far from perfect, and plenty of inconsistency and youth still permeate the Buckeyes. But they did enough right to beat a top-10 team, and that has to count for something.
To delve deeper, here are 10 things that went their way on Sunday, all of which will factor heavily into whether Ohio State has postseason success once this turbulent regular season wraps up.
Got Hot From Outside
Hitting 3-pointers, for this season’s Ohio State offense, has proven to be almost a prerequisite for opening up the rest of the offense.
Mark Turgeon certainly recognized that to be the case on Sunday. After the game, he referenced how the Buckeyes' early 3-pointers spread his team’s defense out and opened up opportunities for Ohio State elsewhere. Kaleb Wesson, Andre Wesson, CJ Walker and Muhammad each made at least two triples.
With a team that doesn’t have many players who get to the rim consistently or dominate the paint, Ohio State has to rely heavily on long-range shots – and probably more than most coaches would prefer.
“I think that is a pretty big tell-tale sign,” Holtmann said. “We don't always have to make 10 threes, but it's a pretty tell-tale sign. I don't know if we can beat really good people without making a number of threes because, again, that's a strength of several guys on our team. That's what they do. We don't have two or three guys that are like Jae'Sean Tate.”
Is that an inconsistent way to win games? Yes. But it’s the way the Buckeyes have to play, and it’s what helped them beat the seventh-ranked team in the country.
Won Key Defensive Matchup
Holtmann knew what he was getting himself into with Maryland’s Anthony Cowan Jr., who leads his team in scoring this season.
“The kid's been such a good player for four years,” Holtmann said. “I can't wait to see him out of the league.”
Cowan managed to get to the line for nine free throws in 31 minutes, but his night ended prematurely after he was called for a technical foul – his fifth foul of the game – with 3:54 remaining. He went 1-for-4 from the field, usually going against Muhammad, who largely held the senior in check. Ohio State hasn’t won those one-on-one matchups all the time this season, but it did on Sunday, and it has to continue to do so moving forward.
No Big Ten team entered Sunday with a higher turnover ratio than the Buckeyes, who have been remarkably careless with the ball. They’re 337th in the nation in non-steal turnover percentage, which is the lowest ranking among teams in major conferences. As much as anything else, carelessness with the ball has proven detrimental this season.
Against Maryland, though, the Buckeyes had only 10 turnovers and turned it over once in the final seven minutes. They had a turnover rate of 15.6 percent, the lowest they've had in a game since beating Michigan on the road three weeks ago.
Got Offensive Contributions From Sophomore Guards
The lack of experience in Ohio State’s backcourt has concerned Holtmann dating back to the summer. And with DJ Carton still away from the team for mental health reasons, depth is an issue, too. That puts the team’s pair of sophomore guards – Washington and Muhammad – in the spotlight to perform.
Both Washington and Muhammad shined in the first month of the season. Since then, they’ve each had rocky campaigns, with Washington struggling with shot selection and his defense and Muhammad going cold from the field. But recently both have shown signs of progress.
Muhammad dropped a season-high 22 points against Maryland and tied his season high by making 4-of-8 3-pointers. He also went 8-for-8 from the foul line. Along with his defense on Cowan, it’s fair to call Sunday’s performance Muhammad’s best all-around game of the season.
“(Muhammad) didn't have these kind of moments for us late last year,” Holtmann said. “Now part of it was we weren't playing him as much, but he didn't respond with these kind of moments like he's responded this year as a sophomore.”
The Buckeyes will need more of that from him down the season’s stretch.
They also need what they can get out of Washington, who had 13 points, going 7-of-8 from the free-throw line. Those two sophomore guards have gigantic roles in an otherwise thin backcourt, and Ohio State will need to play with a greater degree of game-to-game consistency moving forward. Keeping Muhammad confident as a shooter and Washington level-headed in his approach will matter.
In the entirety of the second half, with Kyle Young out with a high-ankle sprain that he suffered with 4:29 remaining before halftime, Holtmann rode a six-man rotation of CJ Walker (17 minutes), Duane Washington Jr. (17 minutes), Luther Muhammad (19 minutes), Andre Wesson (20 minutes), E.J. Liddell (seven minutes) and Kaleb Wesson (20 minutes). And it worked.
In future tight games, it’s easy to imagine that Holtmann won’t stretch his rotation much – if any – deeper. Young’s health, Justin Ahrens’ shooting stroke and Carton’s leave of absence are the only three things that could change it.
Kaleb Wesson Won Individual Matchup
On Thursday, Iowa’s Luka Garza thrived against Kaleb Wesson, who managed only 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting in the 85-76 loss. As the most relied-upon player wearing an Ohio State uniform every night, he has the sometimes unfair burden of needing to win his matchup with every opposing team’s center.
He didn’t on Thursday. He did on Sunday.
Jalen Smith, one of the Big Ten’s most talented big men, had only eight points (3-of-8) and seven rebounds. Wesson nearly matched his season averages with 15 points (5-of-10) and nine rebounds. Importantly, he both hit a pair of 3-pointers and got buckets on post-up opportunities near the rim. To be at its best, Ohio State needs him playing both roles.
“What he makes so difficult is when you play him in different spots and invert the offense,” Holtmann said. “There's a reason why we were 13th in the league last year out of 14 teams in offensive efficiency and going into this game we were fourth. His ability – there's other reasons – but his ability to make it difficult for teams to figure out how they're going to defend some of that stuff has been critical.”
Got To The Free-Throw Line And Converted
Ohio State has a higher free-throw rate than many would imagine – ranking third in Big Ten games in the metric – but getting there with intention hasn’t been a strength. Kyle Young and E.J. Liddell have the two highest free-throw rates within Big Ten play, and their opportunities rarely come on plays designed to get them to the line.
Some of Sunday's free-throw opportunities came late in the game when Maryland was trying to keep the game alive. But going 23-for-28 from the line, however it happens, can win games in the postseason.
Guarded The 3-Point Line
Entering Sunday, the Buckeyes ranked last in the conference in opposing 3-point shooting percentage in Big Ten games. And though they didn’t shut everything down from behind the arc – Aaron Wiggins had a couple open opportunities that Holtmann’s staff will surely hate – they held Maryland to a manageable 34.5 percentage from 3-point range.
They’ll face better outside shooting than the Terrapins presented. But no matter who they face, they have to force results like they did on Sunday rather than the eight games in which teams shot at least 40 percent from beyond the arc against the Buckeyes.
Power Forwards Contributed
Beside Kaleb Wesson, Ohio State needs some else to produce in the frontcourt. And that often becomes a job for Young and Liddell.
Recently, they’ve blossomed.
Young played a key role in Ohio State’s win against Purdue a week ago when he had a career-high 16 points and grabbed six rebounds. Liddell, in the following game against Iowa, dropped a career-high of his own with 17 points and eight rebounds.
Against Maryland three days later, Liddell had two points and five rebounds. Neither of those are gaudy numbers, but both Holtmann and Turgeon specifically mentioned him as somebody who impacted the game on the glass with his activity and physicality.
“It's really critical that he just keeps growing and getting better,” Holtmann said. “His rebounding stemmed the tide. His offensive rebounding, I thought, stemmed some momentum in this game.”
If Liddell and Young – whose health status at this point is uncertain – can provide more consistent performances beside Wesson like they've done the past couple weeks, the Buckeyes' floor would rise.
Memories of what happened against Wisconsin and Minnesota at home in January haven’t gone away, and nor should they. In both games, the Buckeyes had opportunities to close out strong and pick up wins. Instead, they lost by four to Wisconsin and three to Minnesota.
Sunday’s game threatened to put Ohio State right back in that situation. A 14-point lead with 17 minutes remaining turned into a three-point lead with 5:52 remaining.
That’s as close as the game got, though. The Buckeyes proceeded to hit 15 free throws and allow Maryland to make only five shots from the field in the last six minutes. They finished out the Terrapins in a way they might not have been able to a month ago.
“Just really proud of them, because we've been in some of those moments – Kentucky was nip-and-tuck a little bit, and obviously the game up at Michigan was really tight – but we haven't been in a ton of them,” Holtmann said. “So when you do see us respond well, it's good. We've not always responded well to those moments. I can think of a couple games here where I didn't feel like we had great possessions offensively late that were frustrating. So hopefully that's a growth for us. And some of it is us maybe figuring out too where to put our guys in certain situations.”