The preseason grind is officially over for the No. 18 Ohio State Buckeyes as they prepare to tip off the season tonight against the Cincinnati Bearcats in Value City Arena.
Ohio State and Cincinnati are meeting to start the season for the second consecutive year; Ohio State won last year’s contest, 64-56, in Cincinnati.
During Tuesday’s media availability, head coach Chris Holtmann said he has tremendous respect for the Cincinnati program, which he called “consistently one of the best programs in the country.”
“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.
Expectations have been mixed for Ohio State, who returns experience in brothers Andre and Kaleb Wesson, as well as Kyle Young, but will also rely heavily on a deep group of underclassmen. Part of that group will be the heralded freshmen class of D.J. Carton, E.J. Liddell, Alonzo Gaffney, and Ibrahima Diallo, which ranked as the Big Ten’s best recruiting class.
Carton, the headliner of that class, will pair with Florida State transfer C.J. Walker to give Holtmann more scoring potential at the point guard position than he has had since taking over in Columbus.
Buckeye fans got their first look at Carton last week when the team played Cedarville in its lone exhibition game of the season. Carton’s dynamic scoring ability was on full display in that game, albeit against lesser competition, and how Holtmann chooses to deploy him will be among the developments to keep an eye tonight and throughout the early portion of the schedule.
Of course, the Ohio State offense will continue to go as Kaleb Wesson goes, as was the case, at times painfully, last season. Kaleb Wesson has transformed his body this offseason, dropping 34 pounds and entering the season in the best shape of his life. The added stamina should go a long way in allowing him to stay on the floor more, and while on the floor, playing with better energy.
“I definitely felt better,” Kaleb Wesson said of his first game action last week following the offseason weight loss, adding he was able to catch his breath and regroup faster during timeouts. “I definitely feel lighter on my feet in terms of getting up, as well as guarding smaller guys around the perimeter.”
Asked about the added draw of opening the season against Cincinnati, Kaleb Wesson said, “It’s an Ohio thing. (Playing) against guys you played against in high school, AAU, just growing up with them. You see those guys in college, it means a little something extra.”
Young added of playing Cincinnati, “It makes it a little more intense. Last year, playing at their place, they came out with a packed house. It was rocking, so we have to have the same thing (tonight). We hope a lot of people come out and support.”
Cincinnati’s program is going through a transition period as John Brannen takes over for Mick Cronin, who spent 13 years at the helm for the Bearcats before taking the head coaching position at UCLA.
Brannen spent the past four seasons at Northern Kentucky, where he led them to NCAA Tournament appearances twice. He will have the luxury of coaching the reigning AAC Player of the Year award winner in guard Jarron Cumberland, who returns for his senior season after averaging just under 19 points and 4.4 rebounds per game last year.
Junior guard Keith Williams was forced into a larger role last season and responded nicely, averaging 10 points per contest, good for second behind Cumberland.
Tre Scott brings quality size to the Bearcats’ lineup at 6-foot-8-inches tall, and he, too, significantly upped his productions totals last season as he moved into the starting lineup. Scott averaged 9.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game in the 2018-19 season.
In addition to its returning talent, Cincinnati added four new players via the transfer portal, including Cumberland’s cousin, Jaevin, who averaged nearly 19 points per game last season at Oakland.
Holtmann said the experienced additions Cincinnati added to its returning roster is why he feels the Bearcats are well-positioned to have an excellent season.
Another player to keep an eye could be freshman Zach Harvey, who comes to Cincinnati as its highest-ranked recruit of last year’s class and one of the top guard recruits in the entire country.
When asked if he expected more of an offensive-minded Cincinnati team than in years past when the Bearcats were known for their defensive tenacity under Cronin, Holtmann said the team has more scoring options on its roster than it did last year, but its style of play is hard to predict.
Holtmann said playing Cincinnati in the opener is a bit of a “guessing game” in that they know the personnel they will see, but in what ways they will be utilized in a new system is still an unknown.
“That will take some feeling out on our part because we’re just not sure,” Holtmann said of what to expect.
Tip-off for the game is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. and will be broadcasted nationally on FS1.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.