COLUMBUS — Each of the past three seasons, during which Western Michigan has won a combined 21 games, the Broncos have ranked 250th or worse in KenPom turnover percentage. That trend hasn’t changed, even with a head coaching switch.
Now in the second year under head coach Dwayne Stephens, Western Michigan is a ghastly 344th in turnover percentage. That Achilles’ heel showed up Sunday at Ohio State.
The Buckeyes scored 14 points off seven first-half Western Michigan turnovers, shot 8-of-15 from deep the opening frame, had a 20-point halftime lead and then coasted to an 73-56 victory.
“I just think [we’re] finding each other,” said Baylor transfer Dale Bonner, when asked why the Buckeyes (3-1) were so efficient converting Western Michigan (0-4) giveaways into points.
“The more we play with each other and get comfortable, I think we’ll show that even more. Our coaches always tell us push the ball whether they make or miss, just fly around and just try and find each other and get each other going. So that’s what we did.”
Fellow transfer Jamison Battle got off to a strong start, opening up the game with a 3-pointer from the wing and then staking the Buckeyes to a 11-6 lead with a turnaround fade from the post.
The former Minnesota star set the tone for what kind of shooting day it was going to be for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes picked up where they left off in the second half against Merrimack, especially from beyond the arc. Ohio State started 7-of-10 from downtown against Western Michigan.
Five different Buckeyes players made a 3-pointer before intermission, including center Zed Key, who cashed in for his first triple of the season.
Key continued to thrive in his bench role, subbing in for starter Felix Okpara at the 16:47 mark and then logging five points, two rebounds, two blocks and a steal over the next five-plus minutes of action. The senior even stepped in front of a pass and glided down the court for a two-handed dunk.
Key helped jumpstart what became a 21-3 Ohio State run, a surge that gave the Buckeyes a 30-9 advantage with 9:21 to go in the first half.
“We really imposed ourselves defensively in the first half,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said. “It was as good a 20 minutes as we’ve played in a while. And we really physically were locked in, mentally were locked in and imposed ourselves.
“It was a really, really high level 20 minutes.”
The period-defining run featured 3-pointers from Roddy Gayle Jr., Key, Bonner and Bruce Thornton, plus a long 2-pointer from freshman Scotty Middleton off a screen. Bonner even connected from long range twice in that span. The speedy guard responded to missing his first four 3-pointers of the season by knocking down three of his next four attempts across the last two games.
But then Gayle resumed the dunk show he’s been putting on at the Schottenstein Center this season. First the springy sophomore guard used a hesitation move. Gayle briefly hinted that he was going left, courtesy of a screen from Penn State transfer Evan Mahaffey, but he instead went right, flying by Western Michigan forward Anthony Crump en route to the cup for an easy flush.
Then, shortly after that, he was the beneficiary of yet another feed from his classmate and point guard, Thornton. The duo has already combined for an array of highlight-reel alley-oops during the first couple weeks of the season. This time, though, Thornton turned a steal into a fastbreak opportunity that he finished by slipping a pass to Gayle. From there, Gayle slammed home another two points.
The Buckeyes — who finished with at least 15 assists for the second straight game — were capitalizing on the Broncos’ fatal flaw. And although they didn’t record a field goal in the final 2:54 of the first half, they went into the break with a 41-21 lead.
Different half, same result, at least in the early moments: Ohio State kept turning Western Michigan over. Just about three minutes into the final period, and the Buckeyes had three additional steals. Mahaffey was responsible for two of those three thefts, the last of which resulted in a fastbreak layup for Gayle, who tied for the team high with 13 points.
When all was said in done, the Buckeyes — who are only 262nd nationally in KenPom adjusted tempo — had 10 fastbreak points. Gayle’s aforementioned layup was part of that lift in transition scoring, and it was at the heart of an 18-4 Ohio State run following a half-opening 3-pointer by Hubbard.
“Well, it’s been an emphasis all year for us,” Holtmann said, when explaining Ohio State’s heightened tempo. “I thought our pace was good. And it also helped that we didn’t face a zone (which Ohio State saw extensively against Oakland and Merrimack).
“There’s a rhythm to playing offensive basketball when you’ve practiced 75% of your possessions against man. There’s just a rhythm that naturally happens. Well, we didn’t have that rhythm for the bulk of these first three games, and certainly for two of the three.”
Hubbard, Western Michigan’s top scorer this season and Sunday, shouldered the Broncos’ scoring load in the second half. In fact, he scored 22 of Western Michigan’s 35 points in the final frame. He hit from outside and sliced inside, doing his best to keep the score respectable.
But Western Michigan was outmatched, especially because Ohio State was getting significant contributions from its transfers.
Battle and Bonner — who scored 13 and 11 points, respectively — tacked on one more 3-pointer apiece. They each finished with a trio of long-range makes.
The Buckeyes mixed and matched lineups down the stretch, initially giving Middleton and fellow freshman Devin Royal some run together and then emptying out the bench more.
Notably, Okpara was the only starter who got extra minutes in the game’s waning minutes. Holtmann said that was simply game conditioning. The sophomore big man, who has dealt with foul trouble at points this month, had his best outing of the young season, registering six points, 11 rebounds, a steal and an impressive four blocks.
Five Ohio State players finished in double figures, as the Buckeyes, quite frankly, handled the Broncos. They were supposed to. But, after a week full of “buy game” losses in college basketball, Holtmann’s team knew more than ever that no contest is guaranteed.
Especially Battle, who’s with his third school and in his fifth and final season of his college career.
“College basketball is a fickle game where you can face a really good mid-major team and lose that game. But you can face a really good high-major team and win that game,” Battle explained.
“So it’s just always being ready and always being consistent.”
Ohio State was both of those things Sunday.