For the first time in five seasons, No. 18 Ohio State men’s basketball starts the season ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll.
With the caliber of Ohio State’s early schedule, if it plans to stay there, key unfermented pieces of the Buckeyes’ lineup will need to age like fine wine.
“You’re a little reluctant with a younger team and guys that you’re relying on, this number of freshmen and sophomores, that might be my only reluctancy to playing games that are gonna matter,” head coach Chris Holtmann said.
Of the 10 players who played 10 minutes against Cedarville, six were underclassmen. Redshirt junior CJ Walker, who started the game at guard, is playing his first season at Ohio State after transferring from Florida State.
With Cincinnati, No. 10 Villanova, No. 9 North Carolina and No. 2 Kentucky on the schedule before a Big Ten slate including four more ranked opponents, a trio of upperclassmen will need to bring its newer teammates up to speed in short order.
Junior forward Kaleb Wesson considered the NBA draft, but returns as the leading scorer, blocker and rebounder from 2018-19.
In preparation for the upcoming campaign, Wesson lost more than 30 pounds. He said it was about changing his lifestyle, consuming fewer carbs and more protein.
“They told me I shouldn’t be eating sour cream anymore,” Wesson said. “That’s what really killed me. I put sour cream on almost everything.”
His brother, senior forward Andre Wesson, averaged 8.6 points in 2018-19 after playing 30 minutes per game — No. 2 on the team in the latter category.
Holtmann said turnovers were a primary focus in the offseason, with all players memorizing the number 193 — the team’s national rank in giveaways this past season. Wesson’s on-court experience and leadership could help alleviate those issues.
Cincinnati is Ohio State’s first opponent. Its defense is usually strong, Holtmann said, making leadership among Andre Wesson and other experienced players leadership paramount from the season’s opening tip.
“I’ve called this the most challenging opener that I’ve been a part of, in large part because of how much respect we have for their program,” Holtmann said.
Junior forward Kyle Young is the final upperclassman expected to contribute significant minutes, returning after his first season as a starter in 2018-19. While he averaged just six points per game, he did so leading the team in field goal percentage at an efficient .672 clip, which would have been No. 3 in the country if he attempted 40 more shots.
He finished second on the team in rebounds per game with 4.4.
During periods when Kaleb Wesson is off the floor, Young said he needs to stay strong in the low block.
“For the times he’s out, and I’m in there, we’re gonna have a smaller lineup, but we’ve gotta stay physical,” Young said. “That’s really big for me, especially when there’s guys in there that are 7’1”, 260, 270, I’ve gotta work to be stronger on posts, stuff like that.”
Ohio State returns one starter at guard in sophomore Luther Muhammad. Muhammad led the team in 3-point field goal percentage in 2018-19, but shot lower overall from the field than his percentage behind the arc. He was also No. 3 on the team in steals.
Walker has starting experience at the position as well, but in a different uniform. He started 34 games as a sophomore at Florida State. Holtmann said the team needs him to be a “plus-defender” on the perimeter with the other inexperienced depth at guard.
“That’s his way that he’s always impacted the game,” Holtmann said. “It’s not necessarily his offense. It’s been a balance of who he is as a player.”
Freshman DJ Carton provides further depth at the position, putting up 15 points in Ohio State’s exhibition against Cedarville.
Carton is Ohio State’s highest-rated recruit from the 2019 class — No. 34 in the country.
Kaleb Wesson said the two share a special bond as big man and guard, and he’s taken on a mentorship role with the Iowa native.
“DJ being such an emotional guy on the floor, I feel like I’m emotional also,” Kaleb Wesson said. “Being able to tell him how it’s gonna be and how to control those emotions and when to let them out. Also, that point guard-big connection is really important.”
Two other top-50 national recruits join Carton as potential contributors in forwards E.J. Liddell and Alonzo Gaffney.
“The hardest thing for young, talented players is to realize how hard it is to be really good, consistently, when the level increases,” Holtmann said.
Holtmann added that it’s on a coach to get the most talented players to buy into the fact that they need to improve and develop for the college game.
“That’s not to say that you just make up reasons to yell at the best player because players can see through that as well,” Holtmann said. “I’ve had younger players say to me, ‘Coach, you don’t yell at him as much as you yell at me,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, because you screw up more than he does.’”
Ohio State’s young talent receives its first challenge at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Schottenstein Center.