Rapp Around: Gritty Trumps Pretty

By Jeff Rapp, February 10th, 2018

Gritty carries more weight than pretty, especially with March Madness just around the corner.

That idea has been driven home this week in the form of the stunningly successful Ohio State men’s basketball team.

Chris Holtmann’s Buckeyes rallied from a 14-point deficit at Mackey Arena on Thursday night to shock No. 3 Purdue, 64-63, making all the rolled-up-sleeves plays down the stretch.

On Saturday night, before the first sellout crowd at the Schottenstein Center in four years, the No. 14 Buckeyes got to play in a warn environment and let a little wind blow through their hair in a rather easy 82-64 victory over Iowa.

OSU led by as much as 29 and even unleashed a rare fastbreak game in the first half while turning an 18-15 deficit into a 42-32 halftime lead. The Buckeyes (22-5, 13-1 in the Big Ten) shot 56.0 percent in the first half, 50.0 in the second while cruising past an Iowa squad (12-15, 3-11) that hasn’t displayed any defensive resistance to speak of all season.

Still, Holtmann overcame the short turnaround and a classic trap-game scenario by selling his team on the fact that that Hawkeyes took Michigan State to the wire in a track meet earlier in the week.

To add to the subplots, the players wore “EQUALITY” shooting shirts during warmups in honor of Black History Month and also were aware of tragedy of two police officers being slain earlier in the day in nearby Westerville, the suburban hometown of OSU teammates and brothers Andre Wesson and Kaleb Wesson.

“(Finding focus) was the charge we put in front of them because there was a lot going on,” said Holtmann, who opened his postgame address with solemn comments about the Westerville police incident.

Holtmann also noted an arena holding 18,809 was yet another challenge as he was concerned his team would try too hard to entertain a packed-in crowd.

Instead, the Buckeyes found the hot hand, stayed hot, eventually discovered their team defense and went on to douse any hopes the Hawkeyes may have had.

“They’re connected, they have the right attitude, they share the ball,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey said while rattling off all the reasons the Buckeyes easily swept his team.

“I think one of the underrated players in our league is Jae’Sean Tate. He was good when got here and he’s gotten better every year. And the big fella, he’s a handful now.”

McCaffrey was referring to freshman center Kaleb Wesson, who had 10 points in his first nine minutes of action and finished with a game-high 18 and added seven rebounds and a pair of blocks.

Tate logged 11 points, four rebounds, four assists and a steal – along with his usual physicality and hustle – in a supportive role. Micah Potter also hurt Iowa inside by scoring 10 points off the bench, his last hoop coming on a crowd-pleasing dunk. It was a moment of redemption for the 6-10 Potter, who front-rimmed a long-strided dunk attempt in the first half and laughed at himself after the game.

With the Buckeyes in control, star forward Keita Bates-Diop didn’t have to carry the load and shot just nine times. He still managed to score 14 points while mixing in eight boards and four assists. Point guard C.J. Jackson also finished with 14 points to give the balanced Buckeyes five players in double figures.

Jackson needed to be helped off the court in the second half when one of his legs cramped tightly, a problem that has recurred throughout the season.

“We might have to actually have somebody watch him drink Pedialyte because he can be pretty sneaky with that,” Holtmann said. “Apparently he doesn’t like the taste of it.”

Holtmann has reason to poke a little fun right now. His offense is humming. His defense can be stifling, even against a topflight team like Purdue. His decision to suspend senior guard Kam Williams – who wasn’t on board and may have let his academics slip in the process – was correct.

Plus, the bench is starting to spring forward at just the right time. Andre Wesson had 13 huge points at Purdue and suddenly appears capable of picking up Williams’ minutes. Freshman Musa Jallow, another hero in West Lafayette, followed up with four points, three rebounds and a steal. Potter is emerging, giving Holtmann big man relief to go with what he can count on from Andrew Dakich in the backcourt.

The Buckeyes rolled Iowa on a night when many well-rated recruits were in the building and when Michigan State clipped Purdue at home just as the game in Columbus was getting underway. Ohio State, a team many experts picked to finish near the bottom of the league standings, is now alone atop the conference with four games to play.

And the hunger isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

“We keep it in mind as to where we were picked in the preseason,” Potter said. “Coach often brings that up.”

The focus won’t dissipate, either.

“If we play the Lakers next then we play the Lakers,” Kaleb Wesson said. “If we play the Warriors three games down, it’s still about playing the Lakers. The focus is always there.”

When asked to explain Ohio State’s amazing ascension, Holtmann threw out the following factors:

• Poise
• Trusting each other
• Digging in a little harder
• Staying in the moment
• Not being afraid to lose

The last one is interesting because Holtmann didn’t know he had a team that was capable of any swagger. It has some now. And the Buckeyes also are ready to tap into another team sports calling card: revenge.

OSU’s next game is at Penn State on Thursday (8 p.m. Eastern, Big Ten Network). That would be the same Penn State that fired in a banked three at the buzzer on Jan. 25 to produce OSU’s lone league loss this season.

“It’s there for sure; It’s definitely there,” Kaleb Wesson said with a smile.

If the Buckeyes get their payback, they essentially assure themselves of being right in the thick of the Big Ten championship race heading into the final week of the regular season. That’s amazing to type, amazing the read, and amazing to process.

A loss at No. 20 Michigan next weekend would be costly but the Buckeyes finish at home against Rutgers on Feb. 20 and at Indiana on Feb. 23 with destiny awaiting them.

If the Buckeyes actually pull this off, it’s likely most fans won’t remember much about routing Iowa but will be replaying the clutch moments of the win at Mackey – along with the upset of No. 1 Michigan State, the 20-point comeback against Michigan and possibly even the uglier wins over teams such as Nebraska and Illinois during which real peril was avoided.

Grit over flash. Holtmann and his newfound fans will take it every time.