It took Ohio State nearly two months and 14 games to play a ranked opponent this past season, a stretch during which it won 12 of 13 games and rose to No. 13 in the nation.
But the Buckeyes dropped five straight the moment they entered the Big Ten frying pan, a downward spiral that cost them a spot in the polls for the duration of the season and nearly their NCAA Tournament berth.
No. 16 Ohio State (2-0) isn’t easing into the season, as it seeks to avoid the rude awakening of a year ago with a matchup against No. 10 Villanova (1-0) in just its third game –– something the program hasn’t done in eight years.
“To have a team of this caliber come in, it’s a great thing. It’s great for our program,” head coach Chris Holtmann said. “I know in the past, there have been great teams that have come through here, but to have that this early in the year, at home, is just tremendous.”
Villanova and head coach Jay Wright have won two of the past four national titles, a stage the Buckeyes have reached just once in the past 57 years.
Villanova returns six players from a season ago, including three of its top five scorers in junior guard Collin Gillespie, junior forward Jermaine Samuels and sophomore forward Saddiq Bey. The trio combined for 41 points in the Wildcats’ season-opening 97-54 win over Army, their lone game thus far.
The Wildcat frontcourt dominated the matchup, as Bey scored 22 on 9-of-14 shooting, but five-star prospect and freshman forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl shined brightest, putting up 24 points on 64 percent shooting with 13 boards.
“The thing that makes them a little bit different than Nova teams I’ve competed against in the past is their size,” Holtmann said. “At times, they’ll put five guys out there who are six-eight or bigger.”
Robinson-Earl was the No. 16-rated recruit in the class of 2019, and at 6-foot-9, 232 pounds, he was one of three Villanova big men standing at least 6-foot-8 who scored 18 or more in the Wildcats’ first game. Villanova’s roster has a 2-inch average height advantage over the Buckeyes.
Holtmann said senior forward Andre Wesson will be out again with an eye injury he suffered against Cincinnati. A 6-foot-6 wing, Wesson was replaced by 6-foot-3 sophomore guard Duane Washington in the starting lineup Sunday, meaning the Buckeyes will give up even more size against the Wildcats.
“If you thought of a prototypical game where we could honestly use not only Andre’s brain, his mind, his toughness, but his length –– this is certainly a game like that. We’ll be smaller significantly at the wing spot than they are,” Holtmann said. “We’ll have to counteract that in some ways.”
Cincinnati utilized its pair of 7-footers on Ohio State junior forward Kaleb Wesson defensively, which disrupted the Buckeyes’ leading scorer from a season ago to the tune of eight points on 3-of-7 shooting. However, Wesson was able to draw both into early foul trouble, and neither were skilled threats on offense.
Wesson has improved on defense, having drawn multiple charges and nearly doubling his rebounding average from this past season, but his performance on Robinson-Earl will be an early-season metric for just how effective he’s become on that side of the floor.
Holtmann is no stranger to Wright and the Wildcats, having squared off six times when Holtmann coached Butler in the Big East from 2015-17. Holtmann got the better of their most recent matchups, with two upset victories over Villanova in 2016-17.
“Coach talked to us about his past experiences with them, obviously they were in the same conference when he was at Butler. He knows a little bit about what they’re trying to do in their main scheme,” Washington said. “He just talks to us about living for these moments. He recruits guys that live for these moments.”
Although the personnel has changed since Holtmann last faced the Wildcats, he said the Buckeyes have an ace in the hole.
“We’re unique too because we didn’t have a guy quite like Kaleb at Butler,” Holtmann said.
Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Schottenstein Center for the top 20 matchup between Ohio State and Villanova.