Dale Bonner’s 11 points and two assists against Western Michigan symbolized much more than a contribution to Ohio State’s 73-56 win against the Broncos on Sunday.
One of the storylines somewhat lost in the shuffle early in the season for the Buckeyes is their lack of depth at guard. Bruce Thornton and Roddy Gayle Jr. are both expected to be – and so far have been – stars for the squad in 2023-24, but there’s a stark lack of ballhandlers off the bench for Ohio State.
That’s why Bonner’s development as a showrunner and shooter in relief is so vital.
“Until Taison (Chatman) gets fully healthy and we see how he’s coming along, you’re right, it’s critical,” Chris Holtmann said. “He’s important for us, he knows that. He’s got to keep developing, he’s got to keep getting better. He’s got to keep playing to his strengths and impacting the game as we know he can. So yeah, he’s a really important part of this group.”
Bonner collected his 11 points primarily through an efficient 3-for-5 performance from three, two of those makes coming during a 7-for-10 start for the Buckeyes from distance that helped them jump out to a 30-9 lead that kept Western Michigan at bay the rest of the way.
“I don’t think anything was different, I just continued to play with confidence,” Bonner said. “Just play hard every time I step on the floor. Today I hit shots, it was a good day.”
His other major contribution, Holtmann said, came in Ohio State’s transition game. The Buckeyes scored 10 fastbreak points and 16 total off Bronco turnovers, fueled in part by 10 steals on defense.
“I liked his pace today, his speed’s terrific,” Holtmann said. “I liked his shot prep and shot readiness today off of some of their gaps. (As a former) Michigan State assistant (Western Michigan head coach Dwayne Stephens) does a great job, it’s a highly gapped-up defense. I thought (Bonner) punched some gaps and he also had a great shot prep and playing off penetration.”
Bonner added that the Buckeyes’ improved transition offense against Western Michigan came as a result of improved chemistry as the team’s new faces – himself included after he transferred to Ohio State from Baylor this offseason – have jelled through the first two weeks of the season.
“I just think (we were) finding each other,” Bonner said. “The more we play with each other and get comfortable, we’ll show that even more. Our coaches always tell us to push the ball whether we make or miss, just fly around and try to find each other and get each other going.”
Holtmann echoed the sentiment that he and his coaching staff have been urging players to get up the floor with tempo, and feels that such things are easier to achieve against man defenses.
Ohio State has seen a lot of zone defense, particularly in its games against Oakland and Merrimack, to start the year.
“It’s been an emphasis all year for us,” Holtmann said. “Sometimes we’ve been better at it than others. A lot of it is predicated on our defense, it’s just so important. But we have been pushing it off makes more this year than we have in the past. I thought our pace was good, and it also helped that we didn’t face a zone.
“There a rhythm to playing offensive basketball when you practice 75% of your possessions against man. There’s just a rhythm that naturally happens, we didn’t have that rhythm for the bulk of these first three games and certainly for two of the three.”
Bonner got off to a cold start for the Buckeyes in their first three contests, shooting 36% from the floor and 1-of-5 from distance with 3.0 points and 1.3 assists per game.
“He’s important for us, he knows that. He’s got to keep developing, he’s got to keep getting better. He’s got to keep playing to his strengths and impacting the game as we know he can.”– Chris Holtmann on the importance of Dale Bonner's development
The Cleveland native isn’t putting any expectation on himself to consistently score in double digits like he did on Sunday, however. His main focus is on winning.
“I’m going to just come in and come with high energy and do whatever I need to do for this team,” Bonner said. “Whether that’s come in and guard the best player on the (opposing) team, come in and rebound (or) like I did today, hit some shots, I’m just going to come in and be aggressive every time I touch the floor.”
Defense is one area where Holtmann wants to see continued growth from Bonner. His natural athleticism could make for lockdown perimeter defense with proper technique and mentality.
“He’s got to be really good for us on the ball defensively and then he’s got to be disciplined defensively,” Holtmann said. “He’s got to be able to be aggressive in passing lanes and then have discipline too. So there’s a balance there with him. He’s learning a little bit of a (different) defensive system than what he played before.”
Bonner and the Buckeyes will get a better test of their growth against Alabama – last year's regular season and tournament champion in the SEC – in Niceville, Fla. on Friday. The game tips off at 7 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.