Rapp Around: Harsh Reality

By Jeff Rapp, November 30th, 2017

Moments after the horn blew on Ohio State’s 79-65 loss to Clemson on Wednesday, a fellow veteran men’s basketball reporter leaned over to me and asked if I’d rather have this Buckeyes team or the 1997-98 version.

That’s rough.

The last OSU team to play at St. John Arena was Jim O’Brien’s first in Columbus, and some may recall the Buckeyes slogged through an 8-22 campaign that included just one Big Ten win.

The current Buckeyes, now under the direction of new head coach Chris Holtmann, don’t appear headed for that level of ineptitude at first blush.

In fact, they were a breath away from being 6-1 until blowing a 15-point lead on Sunday and losing by a single point in overtime in a 68-67 setback to Butler – Holtmann’s previous employer.

But the slide before the home folks against Clemson brought a harsh reality to light, and there are indeed a lot of similarities between the Buckeyes of 20 years ago and this current undermanned group.

Musa Jallow, Kaleb Wesson and Kyle Young are not Michael Redd – maybe not even combined in terms of production – but they are all promising freshmen who can be building blocks going forward.

The 1997-98 team had a couple quality veterans with some good basketball left in them in the form of Jason Singleton and Neshaun Coleman. Young center Ken Johnson was raw but a force on defense who had room for growth as an offensive player.

Most of the rest of the roster, thin as it was, was filled with serviceable forwards and walk-ons – guys like Jon Sanderson, Shamar Herron, John Lumpkin, Kwadjo Steele and Eric Hanna (yes, I just went Kwadjo Steele).

The current Buckeyes are centered around well-weathered forwards Jae’Sean Tate and Keita Bates-Diop, Wesson inside getting help from Micah Potter (presuming he ever gets healthy), and a bunch of players who are either clearly limited or need time to develop.

Holtmann didn’t recruit C.J. Jackson to be his point point guard just like O’Brien didn’t identify Carlos Davis as his playmaker. That’s just what they inherited.

Davis was a likable local kid who was a strong combo guard and solid defender. He would have been a perfectly fine role player on a solid team. Instead, he was saddled with trying to win games and match up with Big Ten all-stars at the toughest position on the court.

Similarly, Jackson is playing with appreciable effort and has his moments, but when you look down at the box score, it’s just not enough. Against Clemson, Jackson logged seven points, four rebounds, three assists, five turnovers and no made free throws in 34 minutes, which is a fairly standard outing for him.

The Buckeyes of 20 years ago needed a fierce leader in the backcourt and lead guard who could bring everything together. It turns out he was already on campus.

Scoonie Penn followed O’Brien from Boston College to Ohio State but had to sit out the 1997-98 season per NCAA transfer rules at the time. When he jumped into the fray the next season, the Buckeyes vaulted, too – all the way to the Final Four.

The present Buckeyes are very unlikely to do anything like that even if Holtmann’s four-man signing class is impactful or – if you want to be fantastical about it – even if Braxton Beverly had never left campus and turned into a standout point guard.

Still, help is on the way and Ohio State fans will need to be patient for now. And if the basketball gods somehow bring along a transformational player like Penn, Mike Conley Jr. or D’Angelo Russell, the wait won’t be lone at all.

But for now, it’s hard to imagine how Holtmann is going to be able to guide this team through troubled Big Ten waters – and conference play now awaits with a trip to Wisconsin on Saturday and a date with Michigan on Monday next on the docket.

Losing grip of a double-digit lead against Butler led to a disastrous loss that could linger for a while. When Clemson began to get hot and grabbed the lead on Wednesday, Holtmann admitted he sensed his players were were heading down the mental path of “here we go again.”

How do you change that?

Holtmann’s predecessor, Thad Matta, pumped trust of system and belief in team into his players in his first year on the job and somehow squeezed 20 wins out of the 2004-05 Buckeyes. He also claimed one of the program’s all-time signature wins as OSU clipped No. 1 and undefeated Illinois at the end of the regular season.

That huge building block led to a Big Ten championship the following year and noteworthy player development. Maybe Wesson can become the Big Ten Player of the Year as Terence Dials did that campaign.

At the moment, though, the outlook is pretty glum. The Buckeyes are a bit short on talent, especially in the backcourt. Kam Williams isn’t prospering under new management. Andrew Dakich, while a nice story, isn’t taking OSU to the promised land. A lot rests on Tate’s surgically repaired shoulders and the alien-like wingspan of KBD.

The bench is short. Leads likely will continue to disappear. Finishing off winnable games will be anything but easy.

All of this seemed to be hitting Holtmann right between the eyes moments after the loss to Clemson. His voice was somber. He answered lots of questions with the phrase, “I’ll have to think about that” – not in an attempt to be elusive but more of an admittance that he’s going to have to go into deep thought.

Ohio State was outscored 49-28 in the second half and completely fell apart after a four-point possession gave the home team a 47-37 lead. It was a fleeting moment of success.

Brad Brownell’s Tigers (6-1) were playing on the road for the first time this season yet couldn’t have looked more comfortable offensively in the second half, nailing essentially two out of every three attempts while posting a 42-18 finish.

Holtmann lamented his team’s transition defense and said the Buckeyes “weren’t connected,” but the overall defensive effort was even more feeble than that. In short, Clemson never felt disrupted after seizing the lead – and that may be the most alarming development of all.

Granted, the Buckeyes were playing at home after plowing through three games in four days in Portland, Ore. Maybe just maybe their performance had more to do with travel fatigue than anything else. Or maybe it’s all a sign that Holtmann is about to enter O’Brien’s world of growing pains.