Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann and his 16th-ranked basketball team face a daunting non-conference schedule that includes a handful of the blue blood programs across all of college basketball. Tonight, they get the first of those programs as Ohio State (2-0) welcomes No. 10 Villanova into the Schottenstein Center for an early-season measuring stick of just where the Buckeyes currently reside among the best in the nation.
Led by head coach Jay Wright, the Wildcats have won two of the last four national championships, and despite losing their two top scorers from last season in guard Phil Booth (18.6 ppg) and forward Eric Paschall (16.5), a star-studded freshmen class figures to lessen the blow as Villanova eyes another deep run in March.
Holtmann has plenty of prior experience preparing for Villanova teams, having come to Ohio State from Butler, which also plays in the Big East. He expressed his utmost respect and admiration for Wright and the program he has built.
“Villanova is always one of the soundest and toughest teams, physically and mentally, that I’ve ever prepared to play against,” Holtmann said of the challenge his team faces. “They do not get shook in any way, ever. Their teams play with incredible poise.”
Poise will be critical for both teams as both sides are young and neither figures to have a senior on the floor at any time; Ohio State’s Andre Wesson will miss his second straight game with an eye injury suffered against Cincinnati last week.
Villanova (1-0) has long been known for its excellent guard play, but the team’s strength has shifted this season to the frontcourt, where it has both returning experience in sophomore Saddiq Bey and junior Jermaine Samuels, and top-notch talent in highly-touted freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.
At 6-foot-9, Robinson-Earl brings an exceptional blend of size and athleticism to the court, and he got his first season of college basketball started off right last week with a 24-point, 13-rebound effort in Villanova’s season-opening win over Army.
Bey averaged more than eight points last season as a freshman, and both he and Samuels can stretch the floor and knock down outside shots. The two combined to go 3-for-7 from three against Army.
With their size and versatility, the absence of Ohio State’s best defender in Andre Wesson becomes even more critical. That length will also play a major factor on the defensive end where Andre’s brother, Kaleb, will have to work hard to get the ball in position to score.
Holtmann said of Villanova’s ability to keep the ball out of the post, “They’re not great, they’re elite at it.” He added ball movement will be key in finding better looks against the Villanova defenders.
With Villanova doing its best to limit Kaleb Wesson, the perimeter play of the Ohio State offense will go a long way in deciding whether the Buckeyes can secure a huge non-conference win early in the season.
Asked if he felt his team is better equipped to find scoring when going up against a team that denies the ball in the post so well, Holtmann said time will tell.
“I think we will be,” he said. “Are we there yet? I don’t know.”
At guard, junior Collin Gillepsie is the leader of the Villanova backcourt after posting a solid sophomore season in which he averaged 11 points per game. He is joined by 6-foot-4 freshman Justin Moore, who has the potential to be a dynamic scorer and assert himself as part of the new wave of great Villanova guards.
Ohio State will dodge a bullet of sorts with Villanova’s other top-ranked recruit, freshman guard Bryan Antoine, still recovering from a shoulder injury suffered in the spring that required surgery. His status for this season remains unclear, and a potential redshirt for Antoine has been speculated, depending on his recovery.
Holtmann said he is looking forward to seeing how his guys respond to adversity, as well as how they match up physically and mentally to Villanova, each of which will be of utmost importance in winning games such as this one.
Regardless of how it plays out, the early season matchup should be a treat for all parties involved, and Holtmann said he hopes the excitement the team has is reciprocated by the fan base.
“To have a team of this caliber come in … to have that this early in the year, at home, is just tremendous,” he said. “I know our guys are excited, and I hope Buckeye Nation is excited.”
Tipoff for the game is set for 7 p.m., and FS1 will have the broadcast.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.