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Ohio State: What We Learned about Buckeyes ahead of Big Dance opener

C.J. Jackson-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State basketball
Ohio State guard C.J. Jackson and the Buckeyes practiced for the NCAA Tournament in Tulsa, Okla. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports)

Ohio State Basketball

Ohio State: What We Learned about Buckeyes ahead of Big Dance opener

TULSA, Okla. — The accomplishments were briefly acknowledged after the Ohio State bus pulled up to the BOK Center early on Thursday evening.

But that moment didn’t last long before the attention immediately shifted to adding another entry to the list in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. And if the Buckeyes are nervous about that opportunity on Friday night, they’re doing a pretty remarkable job of hiding it.

The team was loose and reacting to every big play in other games around the country on a TV in the corner of the locker room. Out on the practice court, C.J. Jackson threw up trick shots with a smile, Duane Washington busted out his best dance moves during a free-throw session and Joey Lane talked some trash to teammates.

And in the middle of it all was Chris Holtmann, who again set the confident tone for the program when it was time for business.

“I think you have an incredible appreciation, and I’m really appreciative of our players,” Holtmann said. “We had guys step into new roles and grow into new and increased roles and embrace that. Then you had a new group that blended in pretty seamlessly. We had our bumps, there’s no question.

Chris Holtmann-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann is looking for another NCAA Tournament win with the Buckeyes. (Brett Rojo/USA TODAY Sports)

“But we earned the right to be here. And I think the appreciation has really been from Sunday on — but now that you’re here, you’re hungry to see how long we can be here.”

What’s it going to take for the Buckeyes to stick around after taking on Iowa State? Lettermen Row was on hand for the open practice in Oklahoma, and here’s what we learned about the matchup.

Controlling tempo is critical for Ohio State

The Buckeyes haven’t exactly been known for their fast-break potential this season, although there have been signs recently that they might be finding another gear in the open court. Against Iowa State, though, it would seem to make more sense to throw up the stop sign and try to slow down the pace against an offense that ranked among the top-10 nationally and topped the Big 12 with more than 77 points per game. Ohio State would like to pick its spot and keep trying to get buckets in transition, but it will also need to be careful to avoid a shootout.

“Their pace and their offense, I would say if they’re not the best offensive team we’ve played all year, they’re right up there,” Holtmann said. “With how they’re playing, I think they may be the most explosive offensive team we’re playing. So, I think the reality is that we’ll be aggressive in transition when we have opportunities, we’ve gotten a little better in that area, but we also need to understand some key points in how to attack them both offensively and defensively.

“I want our guys to be aggressive in transition when opportunities are there. But having said that, if the game is in the 90s or 100s, that might be difficult for us.”

Buckeyes need Musa Jallow to make a difference

The limitations of the current roster have been well documented, and one thing the Buckeyes are missing is depth and flexibility with the rotation. Ohio State has a couple guys who fit the bill for what Holtmann would ideally need to defend an Iowa State team that can roll out three guards at the same time who are all at least 6-foot-5, and Andre Wesson and Musa Jallow can get the job done. But they’ll have to be sharp against the Cyclones, particularly Jallow coming off a regular season that was an up-and-down ride.

“Their length is a concern, it’s a real concern,” Holtmann said. “It’s right up there at the top of the list. They get a lot of deflections, they get a lot of steals and their ability to finish at the rim using their length is impressive.

“I think what we’ve realized is that has been really important for us. Andre’s importance in terms of versatility is something we’ve talked about going back to the summer. But now Musa has given us versatility defensively, on the glass — and in a game like this, we don’t have quite enough guys who have that versatility. There’s no question Musa is going to be important.”

Keyshawn Woods-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State basketball

Ohio State guard Keyshawn Woods is emphasizing defense, just like always. (Brett Rojo/USA TODAY Sports)

Kaleb Wesson must avoid foul trouble

By now it’s no secret: Ohio State simply isn’t a real threat without Kaleb Wesson playing a prominent role. Iowa State has a couple of big bodies it can throw at Wesson in the post, but it’s not a team that boasts all that much size to try to slow him down offensively. So, if he can handle his business on the other end without fouling when the Cyclones drive at the rim, he should be able to have the kind of impact the Buckeyes need from him.

“I don’t know if there’s a specific type of team where you would say, OK, he gets in foul trouble more against,” Holtmann said. “He didn’t get in foul trouble say, against, [Maryland] in that game at their place. I think the reality is he’s just got to continue to play smart. And I think attacking that are trying to get to the rim are ones that concern us a little bit, and this is certainly a team that does that.

“There are some times where he just can’t get his body out of harm’s way, and that happened against Michigan State. I think he had two really unfortunate calls there, and we’ve got to be able to absorb that. But if we’re going to beat a quality opponent, he can’t play 10 or 15 minutes. We have to keep him on the floor.”

Defense remains first priority for Buckeyes

Keyshawn Woods cracked a wide smile when asked about the message from Holtmann heading into another marquee game.

“He’s very intense — and he doesn’t play when it comes to his defense,” Woods said.

That’s been the calling card for the Buckeyes since Holtmann arrived, and it will stay that way into the future. But for this particular season, rugged, relentless defense has been a necessity to keep games competitive even against opponents that look like a mismatch for Ohio State.

“He pretty much has it down where he wants us to be real detailed about your positioning, how you guard, knowing personnel,” Woods said. “He’s very, very detailed when it comes to stuff like that. Even in practice, to this day he’s the same way and he’s not going to change.

“Our defense carries us. And I think it fuels our offense.”

The Buckeyes are going to need plenty of both to spring the upset. And now that they’ve arrived in Tulsa, that’s their only focus instead of celebrating a season that already qualifies as a success.

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Austin Ward is Lettermen Row's senior writer covering Ohio State football and basketball. The award-winning journalist has covered the Buckeyes since 2012, spending five of those seasons working for ESPN after previous stints at the Casper Star-Tribune and Knoxville News Sentinel.

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