Waiting until the final eight minutes of play to attempt his first field goal against Niagara was probably not what Chris Holtmann had in mind when he said he wanted to see more offense from Jamari Wheeler.
But the Buckeyes’ new starting point guard, primarily a defensive stalwart, came alive offensively during a crucial stretch in Friday night’s 84-74 win, draining back-to-back 3-pointers, dishing a big assist and knocking down clutch free throws in the latter stages of another closer-than-expected contest.
Holtmann has described his backcourt as a “work in progress” on more than one occasion early in the season, and it appeared to be just that on Friday. But for Wheeler in particular, the end of the Niagara game gave the Penn State transfer some confidence to build on moving forward.
“It was great to see, because our team needs that from him,” Holtmann said after the game. “He may not be a guy that’s gonna create – he can create some – but what he can do is shoot the ball. And I loved seeing that, I was really happy for him, because we’ve been on him about doing that.”
For the second straight game to open the season, Ohio State relied heavily on star forward E.J. Liddell to score the ball. The returning first-team All-Big Ten performer took a career-high 19 shots in Tuesday’s 67-66 win over Akron, and on Friday, Liddell scored a career-high 29 points against the Purple Eagles. The next highest-scoring Buckeye was Zed Key with 11 points.
Among Ohio State guards, Wheeler led the way with nine points. None of those came until the final 7:30 in a tight game against Niagara.
Wheeler’s five-point performance on only three shot attempts in last week’s exhibition against Indianapolis drew criticism from Holtmann due to his point guard’s lack of offensive aggression. With a two-point effort in Tuesday’s season opener, Wheeler didn’t do much to dispel those notions. The same could be said for much of Friday night’s game until Wheeler finally identified his opening.
Niagara had just cut the Buckeye lead to 64-58 with a quick 4-0 run when Wheeler answered back with a 6-0 run of his own. With Wheeler’s man cheating over to help on Liddell in the paint, Liddell picked up his dribble to find a wide-open Wheeler at the top of the arc. Despite catching the ball several feet behind the 3-point line, Wheeler didn’t hesitate to let it fly on the catch-and-shoot look. The shot was good, and the Buckeyes increased their lead to nine.
Two possessions later, Wheeler’s man was caught sagging off of him again, this time to help on Malaki Branham as he probed to the elbow on a power dribble. Wheeler created space behind the line, caught the pass from Branham and knocked in another shot from deep, extending the Ohio State lead to 12 points with 6:23 remaining.
“I just go with the flow of the game,” Wheeler said after the game. “I know Coach and the players, they’ll be on me like, ‘Be more aggressive on the offensive end.’ So that’s one thing I was looking to come into. But it’s just the flow of the game, and I felt like I was open so I had to knock it down.”
On both plays, it was clear Wheeler’s defender was not expecting him to become much of an offensive threat, and instead committed hard to playing help defense on other Buckeyes. That dynamic is precisely why Holtmann and the Ohio State coaching staff have harped on Wheeler to shoot the ball more when he has the opportunity.
“Trust me, that’s come up in film sessions before. People are gonna sit in the gap,” Holtmann said. “The kid got 36 percent from three last year, and he’s a good shooter. He just needs to get his hands and be ready, and Malaki really delivered a nice pass to him on one of those.”
Wheeler has never averaged more than 6.8 points per game in a collegiate season, and he’s only taken double-digit shot attempts twice in his career. Wheeler may prefer to find his offense in the natural flow of the game, but it’s evident Holtmann would like that flow to yield a few more offerings from Wheeler when it comes to shots taken.
But Wheeler also facilitated offense well for others on Friday, finishing the night with a game-high six assists. One of those helped keep momentum firmly on the side of the Buckeyes late against Niagara, as Wheeler and Branham executed a fast break to perfection when the latter threw down a dunk in transition courtesy of a touch pass from Wheeler at the 4:38 mark. The play extended the Buckeyes’ lead to 74-62.
Another of Wheeler’s assists was no doubt a sentimental highlight of the contest for Buckeye fans, as the floor general found fifth-year senior forward Kyle Young for an and-one alley-oop dunk just seconds after he checked into the game to make his season debut in the first half.
The chemistry exhibited on that play may be another promising sign for the Buckeyes moving forward.
“That’s one of the reasons I came here, to play with him also. Just to see that presence that he has on this team and that Ohio State family, that means a lot,” Wheeler said. “Every day I was asking him like, ‘You coming back? You playing next game?’ Just excited and ready to play with him. So it’s been exciting; I’m glad to have him back, for sure.”
Questions about the Buckeye backcourt remain after Friday night’s contest, to be sure. For Holtmann, though, improvement was satisfactory from Wheeler and company in the second game of the season.
“I thought our guys had some really good responses and some really good moments, and I was proud of some of the growth with some of those guys,” Holtmann said. “I thought our backcourt – with Jamari and Meechie (Johnson) and Malaki – had some really good moments.”