By Mitch Stacy, AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — New Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann did his best to keep expectations in check during the preseason last year. The first-year coach — and most everyone else — expected it would be a rebuilding year for the Buckeyes after a rash of transfers.
Instead, an overachieving team behind Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate became one of the best college basketball stories of the year, finishing 25-9 and earning Big Ten coach of the year honors for Holtmann.
With so many new faces and questions about roles, that expected rebuilding year might be this year instead.
“I’ve said this to our coaching staff: This is our most challenging year since we’ve been together,” Holtmann said, referring to the assistants who followed him to Ohio State from Butler. “I think we have some challenges as a staff and a program, but that’s also exciting in that we get to see how quickly we can forge a new identity with the new group.”
Bates-Diop and Tate — and their combined 32 points and 14.9 rebounds per game — have moved on, along with the team’s best 3-point shooter, Kam Williams.
Some key players return and promising newcomers will contribute, but Holtmann again finds himself in the position of resetting expectations.
“One of the questions for this group is going to be, who is going to answer the bell when it gets late or gets into crunch-time situations?” he said. “We had two all-conference guys who made so many plays for us late in the year.”
NO STARS BUT FAMILIAR FACES
The Buckeyes expect important contributions from senior point guard C.J. Jackson, who was the team’s second-leading scorer last year with 12.6 points per game while shooting 38 percent from the beyond the 3-point line.
Brothers Andre Wesson and Kaleb Wesson will be pushed onto center stage, and underachieving big man Micah Potter will be counted on to be a more commanding presence in the paint. Kyle Young and Musa Jallow, bit players as freshmen last season, will see more playing time.
“I’m really excited about this team,” said Jallow, a guard who averaged 2.5 points in 14 minutes per game as a freshman last season. “You can see our energy that we have here. It’s just a fun environment to be in.”
KALEB’S THE MAN
The man in the spotlight will be 6-foot-9, 270-pound forward Kaleb Wesson, who said he’s dropped body fat and built muscle without losing pounds. He said he’s worked to become more versatile and is ready to play more than the 21 minutes per game he saw last season.
The sophomore from suburban Columbus may not end up playing the 30 minutes he’d like, but Holtmann said the younger Wesson brother will shoulder a lot of the load.
“He’s worked hard to put himself in position to be more conditioned, and I think just having a year under his belt will help that,” Holtmann said. “I wouldn’t necessarily want to put a number on it, but I can tell you his minutes will significantly increase. He’s going to shoot more 3s and play more out on the floor.”
WATCH THE NEW GUYS
Holtmann added a highly regarded four-man freshman class whose members surely will have to play significant roles. The addition of graduate transfer guard Keyshawn Woods also helps with depth in the backcourt.
Woods played in 28 games for Wake Forest last year, averaging 11.9 points and 2.5 rebounds. Holtmann said he could bring some leadership, too.
The freshmen include forward Jaedon LeDee, swingman Justin Ahrens and guards Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington.
Highly prized shooting guard Muhammad, who is also a tenacious defender, might work his way right into a starting job.
“He’s just got that super-tough, killer mentality,” Potter said.