Sophomore center Kaleb Wesson will return to Ohio State’s lineup on Thursday as the Buckeyes take on Indiana in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Wesson’s return ends his three-game suspension for a violation of athletic department policy. In his two-week absence, Ohio State went 0-3, losing 86-51 at Purdue, 68-50 at Northwestern, and 73-67 to Wisconsin at home in overtime. The Buckeyes trailed by as many as 23 points against the Badgers.
Without Wesson, Ohio State struggled on both ends of the court, but it was the Buckeye offense that looked the most lost without him.
In those three losses, Ohio State scored a total of 53 first-half points.
That’s a paltry 17.7 first-half points per game.
Without Wesson to help facilitate the offense, the team’s shooting eroded immediately. The Buckeyes shot 32.6% from the field over the last three games, and were 15-of-70 (21.4%) from three-point range.
Now that he has returned, the hope is that Ohio State will be able to pick up sort of where they left off when Wesson was helping the Buckeyes beat Iowa by 20 points. The desire to hit the ground running upon his return was one of the reasons why head coach Chris Holtmann kept Wesson with the team during his suspension.
“He’s been with us and that’s why I’ve kind of had him with us,” Holtmann said on Tuesday. “Everything that we’ve done, he’s been a part of. He was on scout team and he was doing additional workouts in the morning with [strength coach Quadrian Banks]. So he was doing two workouts a day. He was doing a morning workout that was required, as well as practice, and then some post-practice conditioning. We’ve obviously scaled back on that given that we play on Thursday. We’ll see. ”
There are concerns about Wesson being ready for game action. As Holtmann said this week, they get nervous about Wesson when he’s missed a couple of days, let alone two weeks.
“There’s nothing we can really do to replicate fully the game pace and the game speed,” he explained. “I do think wind may be a concern and it’s something I’m going to try to monitor closely. And he’s going to have to play through a little bit of it too. He’s going to play through some fatigue.”
In terms of reintegrating back into the flow of the team, as well as the flow of his own emotions, Holtmann simply wants to have the old Kaleb Wesson back. Holtmann is aware that Wesson can sometimes get too fiery, and this could be one of those situations given how long it’s been since he’s seen the court, but he isn’t going to tell him anything that he hasn’t already told him before.
“I think he’s just gotta be Kaleb,” Holtmann said. “He’s just gotta be Kaleb. I am aware of that. It’s unique, I’ve never been in a situation where you lose a guy and he comes right back for the conference tournament. It’s just kind of a unique situation. I don’t really have a playbook for what that’s going to look like, other than he’s just gotta be Kaleb. He’s got to find a way to impact the game on both ends.”
Based on the bracketology models, this game against Indiana is essentially a play-in game for the NCAA Tournament. As such, every minute will be important. Each “four-minute battle” that coaches and teams progress through will grow weightier and weightier.
As Holtmann reintroduces Wesson into the offense and defense, he must find a balance between being having a quick hook if things aren’t working well early, versus simply allowing Wesson to get his footing back.
How does he plan on walking that line?
“It’ll be a bit of a feel thing depending on the circumstances of the game and how he looks like he’s doing,” Holtmann said. “The one thing about [Indiana] is they have two very athletic bigs that they’re playing, so he’s got to manage their mobility. We’ve got to get a feel for how he does in the first stretch of the game and see what his conditioning is like and we’ll kind of go from there.”
And while everyone is happy that the team is relatively back to full strength, there is one message that Holtmann needs Kaleb Wesson and the rest of his team to hear loud and clear.
“I think it’s important for him and us to not have a false sense of ‘now that Kaleb is back, everything’s fine,'” he said. “We’ve got to play well, and Kaleb has to help his team play well now that he is back. And that’s the bottom line.”