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Ohio State looks more like an NCAA Tournament team with Kaleb Wesson's return

Before Ohio State stepped onto the United Center court Thursday morning, Kaleb Wesson’s teammates promised the returning center he would find the ball in his hands often.

Wesson hadn’t touched the court for three games because of a suspension for an unspecified violation of athletic department policy, and Ohio State went 0-3 during that stretch.

Entering the second-round Big Ten Tournament game against Indiana, Buckeyes players acknowledged the stakes were high as a team teetering on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Wesson’s return increased their confidence.

“My teammates were making a big deal at the beginning of the game,” said Wesson, a 6-foot-9 sophomore. “Like, ‘Yeah, we’re happy to have you back. We’re going to get you the ball and get you into rhythm.’ ”

He finished with 17 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals in the 79-75 victory and made it clear the Buckeyes need him at his best if they’re fortunate enough to compete in March Madness.

“Kaleb draws a lot of attention,” said Keyshawn Woods, who scored 18 points. “He opens up the floor for everybody else. On the defensive end, he’s a great presence, too, protecting the rim. He’s a great talker and communicator. It’s great to have Kaleb back on the floor with us.”

The eighth-seeded Buckeyes (19-13) were facing another hungry team that likely needed a Big Ten Tournament win or two to earn an NCAA Tournament bid. That door appears to have closed on the ninth-seeded Hoosiers (17-15).

Top seed Michigan State awaits the Buckeyes in Friday’s first quarterfinal.

Tournament talk can be a distraction or a motivator. Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann isn’t foolish enough to expect his team doesn’t hear the chatter about its in-or-out status.

“They start bubble talk, I think, in November,” Holtmann joked. “That conversation has been going on for a while. It requires some discipline. … We’ve just tried to focus on trying to play more possessions and quality basketball.

“So is it hard? Sure. I mean, it’s everywhere this time of year. Our guys did a pretty good job here this last week and a half.”

He’s right that the Buckeyes were aware of their precarious status. Wesson said they still might need to win another game or two in the Big Ten Tournament — or at least they need to play with that mindset.

“Everyone out there played their heart out knowing it was a bubble game,” he said. “Everybody wants to get to the big dance.”

The Buckeyes looked like an elite team at times against the Hoosiers. They led by 20 and got key contributions from Woods, C.J. Jackson (17 points) and Andre Wesson (13 points) — Kaleb’s brother — while shooting 50 percent in the second half.

Woods, a senior guard averaging 7.1 points, scored six in the final three minutes when the Hoosiers were rallying.

“He was tremendous in every way,” Holtmann said. “He looked like, since the 10-minute mark of the Wisconsin (loss Sunday), like a guy that wasn’t ready to see his career over anytime soon. That’s what you hope for in seniors.”

To keep moving forward, the Buckeyes need Kaleb Wesson. They’re a different team when he’s on the court.

But they need others to rise to the occasion as they did Thursday.

For Wesson, being back on the court with his teammates was cathartic.

“It’s been tough,” he said. “You always want to be out there with your guys, guys you’ve been struggling with and grinding with from the beginning of the year. I missed being out there with them.”

He said he had a message for his teammates too.

“I’m sorry and thank you,” he said he told them. “I’m sorry for putting you guys in this position, and thank you for letting me back.”

sryan@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @sryantribune

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