After a disappointing end to the 2021 season, Ohio State basketball turns the page behind its All-American candidate.
Riley’s Ranking: 21st
Oddly enough, Ohio State’s football and basketball teams watched their hopes crumble at the feet of undersized dynamos last season. On the gridiron, Alabama’s Devonta Smith torched the Buckeyes for 12 receptions, 215 yards, and 3 touchdowns in the national championship. Two months later, Max Abmas picked up right where Smith left off. Who could forget the diminutive point guard kicking off Oral Roberts’ Cinderella run? In a Curry-esque performance, the 5-9 Abmas did a whole tutorial on shooting off the bounce. Twenty-nine points later, the Buckeyes became just the ninth 2-seed to drop a game to a 15-seed.
But fear not, Buckeyes fans. Ohio State returns almost every rotational piece from last season and will remain near the top of the Big Ten standings.
The offense should keep humming at an elite level as long as Chris Holtmann is in charge. His resume speaks for itself — only once since 2016 has a Holtmann-coached team finished outside of the top 25 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric.
His success on that end stems from his ability to identify and maximize his players’ skills. More specifically, Holtmann forms the offense around their giftings instead of limiting them to one particular system. Sometimes, he runs sets to clear the paint or free up shooters (via pin-downs, dribble-hand-offs, and screen the screener action). Other times, he simplifies the offense, dialing up spread PnR concepts or iso out of the post.
But of course, the Xs and Os are only half of the equation; the Jimmys and Joes play an equally important part. It starts with Buckeyes returning a preseason All-American in EJ Liddell. The junior big man went nuclear last season, increasing his production in every statistical category. At 6-7 and a dense 240, one may expect Liddell to rely strictly on power. But his footwork and coordination contrast his burly frame. He masterfully creates out of the mid-post better than any big in the conference:
Liddell also exhibits soft touch on his jumper. As a freshman, he showed a penchant for hitting mid-rangers (49 percent on 51 attempts, per Hoop-Math), and he matched that efficiency as a sophomore (43.3 percent on 164 attempts). But perhaps most impressive was his leap in outside shooting. Last year, Liddell made 27 3s, up from five 3s as a frosh. Those numbers don’t even tell the full story. Per KenPom, he cashed 21 of those 3s against Tier A opponents — at a 37.5 percent clip, no less.
And just in case you think that he doesn’t know how to use his size … Well, he ranked fifth in the Big Ten in free-throw rate a season ago.
Forward Kyle Young excels alongside him as a “know your role” All-Star (to borrow a term from Three Man Weave). The super-senior seems content to set screens, roll to the hoop, grab offensive boards, and show off his tattoo sleeve. Lastly, sophomore Zed Key, the biggest of the big men, rounds out the post rotation. Key posted Liddell-like numbers from mid-range last season (55.1 percent) and could be in for a mini-leap in Year 2.
Transitioning to the wing, the Buckeyes boast one of the league’s most underrated players in Justice Sueing. The rangy lefty did a little bit of everything last season, most remarkably assuming point guard duties when CJ Walker missed time. With the ball in his hands, Sueing thrived in PnR, bouncing off of contact as he slashed to the rim.
Like Liddell, the senior swingman factored heavily into Ohio State’s high free-throw rate (38th nationally in 2021).
Senior Justin Ahrens and super-duper senior Seth Towns provide depth along the perimeter, albeit in different roles. Ahrens enters the game with the sole purpose of raining down trey balls like precipitation in the Amazon. In 2021, the 6-6 guard attempted seven 2-point field goals compared to 127 3-point field goals. Particularly, he excels at curling off of screens and shooting on the move out of dribble-hand-offs.
Towns, on the other hand, flips between the 3 and the 4. In last year’s Big Ten Tournament, he proved his worth, filling in admirably for an injured Young. Unfortunately, Town’s own injuries have hampered his career. This time around, back issues will sideline him for the first two months of the season. Still, he can supply quality minutes off the pine when he returns.
But even with all this firepower on offense, one question remains: who replaces Duane Washington’s scoring in the backcourt? Two candidates emerge — freshman Malaki Branham and Louisiana transfer Cedric Russell. A highly touted four-star recruit, Branham finished high school with a decorated career. At St. Vincent-St. Mary’s (yes, that St. Vincent-St. Mary’s), he won two state championships and earned recognition as Ohio’s Mr. Basketball. Branham is a heat-seeking missile, embracing physicality en route to the hoop. However, he likely isn’t ready for starter’s minutes as a freshman. On top of the adjustment from high school to the Big Ten, his 3-point jumper also has a ways to go.
That leaves Russell, a model of consistency for the Ragin’ Cajuns the last two seasons. He has no problem creating his own shot, but he also looks more than comfortable wearing out defenders off-ball. Notably, Russell connected on 40 percent of his 3-pointers on an insane seven attempts per game. Up-transfers always come with risk, but Holtmann will give him ample opportunity to prove himself.
Finally, that leaves the defense, the Achilles’ heel of the 2021 Buckeyes. For just the second time in his post-Gardner Webb career, Holtmann’s squad ranked outside of the top-50 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric. (Side note: 2015 Butler ranked 8th nationally in this metric. Pretty wild.) Ohio State missed its best wing defender, Andre Wesson, and its best interior defender, Kaleb Wesson, from the 2020 team. Consequently, its pack-line-style scheme lost its juice. Holtmann added on-ball fiend Jamari Wheeler from Penn State, but no other clear solution appears to be on the roster.
Still, Holtmann has earned the benefit of the doubt, and perhaps pure experience gives way to a leap on that side of the ball.
Projected starters: G – Jamari Wheeler (Gr.); G – Cedric Russell (Gr.); G/F – Justice Sueing (Sr.); F – Kyle Young (Gr.); F – EJ Liddell (Jr.)
Projected bench: F – Zed Key (So.); G – Justin Ahrens (Sr.); G – Malaki Branham (Fr.); G – Eugene Brown (So.); G – Meechie Johnson (R-Fr.); F – Seth Towns (Gr.)**
Strengths: Versatile offense; spacing; shooting; drawing fouls
Weaknesses: Perimeter defense; creating turnovers
Best player: Liddell
Breakout player: Key
**injured to start the season