Ending the nonconference schedule without a signature loss has proved as difficult as winning one of college basketball’s premier conferences the past two seasons for Ohio State.
With a win against in-state opponent Miami (Ohio) Saturday, Chris Holtmann would finish his first nonconference schedule as the Buckeyes head coach without taking on substantial damage to its NCAA Tournament resume.
Veterans Keita-Bates Diop, Kam Williams and Jae’Sean Tate didn’t allow the RedHawks (7-6) to ruin that narrative.
Miami cut Ohio State’s 17-point, second-half lead to just five points in a little more than four minutes, but a 10-0 run with less than three minutes gave the Buckeyes (11-4) enough separation to finish upset-minded Miami, 72-59 in their final tuneup before 16 straight Big Ten games.
Bates-Diop recorded 19 points and nine rebounds, guard C.J. Jackson, Williams and Tate finished with 16, 15 and 11 points, respectively.
Ohio State accomplished its goal by ending the nonconference slate with a victory, but it wasn’t anywhere near the performance Holtmann envisioned.
“We didn’t play with enough assertiveness,” Holtmann said. “I thought at times — more than at times — they were more physical than we were … I think we got to answer the bell better than we did today in terms of just playing with more physicality.”
Leading by seven at the half, it seemed like just a matter of time before Ohio State began to run away with the game. It was quite the opposite.
When Ohio State took its biggest lead of the game, Miami sophomore forward Bam Bowman, who entered the game averaging 4.8 points per game, hit three of his five triples to boost the RedHawks back into the game.
Freshman Dalonte Brown made a layup with 6:03 remaining to cut the Miami deficit to just three.
The next two possessions, Jackson and Williams hit back-to-back triples. Tate followed that up with a second-chance layup to give the Buckeyes a double-digit lead they would finally hold on to.
There were certainly moments in the game Holtmann was recalling after the game when bringing up a lack of physicality, but the 10-0 stretch was identified as the moment Ohio State made winning plays.
With five minutes remaining and Ohio State leading by six, Jackson rolled his ankle on a missed layup, creating a man-up transition opportunity for the RedHawks. Jackson hobbled back down to the weak-side of the floor and took a charge. Next possession, Jackson found Williams for a 3 that gave the Buckeyes a nine-point lead.
“It was a really important play,” Holtmann said. “I’ve been on him, I’m on him a lot on those kind of things, but he’s really playing with a lot of confidence. He’s playing aggressively. He’s playing free and he’s making an impact on both ends.”
Jackson had six assists to three turnovers Saturday as he continues to improve and gain confidence in the offense. But what Ohio State’s offense failed to do against Miami was put them away at the first chance.
Even in the first half when Ohio State had a quick 5-0 run to lead by seven, Miami continued to trade buckets and keep the Buckeyes within arm’s reach.
That’s a narrative that will have to change moving forward.
“We just needed to get consistent stops,” Williams said. “We can’t trade baskets with anybody. Especially going into Big Ten play, you trade baskets, the next thing you know you’re down 20. We needed to nip that in the bud as soon as possible.”
It was announced before the game that Tate had suffered a left shoulder sprain during practice Thursday and was questionable to play. Wearing a patch on his left shoulder, Tate remained in the starting lineup and played 28 minutes.
The injury was unrelated to Tate’s past shoulder injuries, per a team spokesperson. Tate missed the remainder of his sophomore season after undergoing surgery on a torn labrum on the same shoulder in late February 2016.
Holtmann said Tate was very limited in Friday’s practice and with the team having three days off for the holidays, Tate’s endurance has taken a hit.
“I didn’t think he was in a very good rhythm. I didn’t think his conditioning was very good,” Holtmann said. “I just don’t know right now if he’s in a good-enough shape for him to play the way we want him to play, to be quite honest. It happens to anybody who’s been off, but he’s had more days off and he’s got to get in better shape.”
Now, this isn’t a coach taking a shot at his senior leader. Holtmann has said before that Tate’s body is just prone to becoming out of shape quickly if he doesn’t have the constant stimulus of practice and games. The injury didn’t limit his range or the way he played the game, so it shouldn’t be a cause for concern.
C.J. Jackson becoming reliable scorer
Bates-Diop has been the star on Ohio State’s team this year, which has diverted much of the attention away from Jackson who just scored double-digit points for the sixth time in the last seven games. With his 4-for-6 performance from 3 against Miami, Jackson is now shooting 43.8 percent from behind the arc.
Bates-Diop shot just 6-of-18 overall and 0-for-6 from 3 Saturday. It’s likely he will have a few games like that moving forward in conference play, which is when Jackson’s contributions could be most important.
Where does Ohio State stand?
At 11-4, with two Big Ten wins and no signature losses, Ohio State is in a good spot for the only thing that matters in college basketball — the NCAA Tournament.
“I look back at our nonconference as we complete it and I feel good about it,” Holtmann said. “Certainly there’s maybe one of two that we would’ve liked to win that particular game.”
He will never discuss his team’s prospectus of making the tournament in late December, but he seems aware of areas the Buckeyes must improve on for the second half of the season.
“Now the challenge is can we learn from some of these things where we have to get better,” he said. “Because if not, we’ll be in for a really, really challenging stretch.”