The football appetizer of Buckeye sports is half eaten, but it’s time for the main course. Buckeye basketball will be back in just weeks, and with it the return of a very fun and yet very weird team from last year. Let this article be your guide on what to expect from the best team in Columbus.
Everyone remembers the very end, where the #2 seed Buckeyes fell to upstart #15 seed televangelist Oral Roberts. The Buckeyes’ lack of rim protection and inability to guard the perimeter allowed Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor to combine for 59 points. It was a sad ending to a rather fun season.
The Buckeyes started off looking rough, with losses to Purdue and Northwestern. However, in a trip to Illinois in January, E.J. Liddell started hitting three pointers, and the Buckeye offense unlocked, eventually landing at fourth in efficiency on KenPom. This offense carried them through the Big Ten season and within a hair of the B1G tourney championship. The defense was never good, landing at 82nd on KenPom and generally struggling to defend anyone who could score inside or outside.
The big loss is on again, off again shooting guard Duane Washington Jr. His streaky shooting was accompanied by an improving drive game, which he used in really strong games against Michigan and Illinois. His ability to make hard shots will not be easy to replace.
C.J. Walker is the other starter to leave. He was a bit puzzling as a player - he displayed the ability to get to the rim, he was a competent passer, and he was a terrific free throw shooter (94%). But his excellent free throw shooting never quite translated to shots from other areas, which made the difference between a superstar and a replacement player at the point.
The transfer portal claimed two guys. One is swiss army knife defender Musa Jallow, who could never quite put enough together offensively to stay on the floor. They also lost very lightly used big man Ibrahima Diallo.
No shortage of options at the point this year. The presumed starter is Penn State transfer Jamari Wheeler, who was fairly average at everything except for one skill, which is to be an absolute pest for perimeter ballhandlers. It’s a skill that OSU simply lacked last year, and the hope is Wheeler’s ability to bother people will make up for his lack of offense. You can tell the coaches just love Wheeler, which makes me think he’ll get the majority of minutes there.
If not, OSU has Meechie Johnson coming back. Johnson reclassified into a college freshman on the fly last year, which would have been his senior year in high school. He has the look of a fearless shooter and the reputation as someone trying to make plays on offense. He should get some run when the team needs offensive punch, and don’t be surprised if he and Wheeler play a lot of minutes together. Also in the mix is Jimmy Sotos, who would have been the backup point last year but for a rough shoulder injury that knocked him out for the season.
The shooting guard competition to replace Duane Washington will be mostly between two guys. Louisiana Lafayette transfer Cedric Russel is a bit of the Duane Washington clone. He has the reputation of a high usage scorer, and his 40% clip from three last season is attractive. But the Sun Belt and the B1G are two different stories, so his ability to adjust is a question. Backing him up is true freshman and touted recruit Malaki Branham. What to expect from him is anyone’s guess; he has the reputation of an athletic slasher who can power to the rim. Still, this position is a question mark.
Justice Sueing is back and will likely play a million minutes. He has a versatile offensive game, but was a bit passive at times considering his skill set. A transfer from Cal, he seemed a bit tentative with the physicality of the conference. If he improves defensively and is more active on offense, he could be a second team All-B1G type.
Behind him are Super Shooter Justin Ahrens, who hit 42% of his threes last season. The well known book on him is his allergy to doing anything besides shooting threes. The man shot seven twos, ten free throws, and 127 threes. If he can add anything to his game, he is a legit player, but that might be fool’s gold by this point. Eugene Brown will also get some run. The coaches clearly liked him, giving him some minutes as a true freshman last year. They are hoping he turns into a three and D type on the wing, but results are pending.
Old man Seth Towns returns as well. His pure shooting stroke would be a big help, but unfortunately he had back surgery and is out until December. That’s disappointing - his game is fun and he provided some scoring punch off the bench last year. If he can get healthy, he might give them some real pop, but that’s a real question.
E.J. Liddell is the BMOC this year. His ability to score at all three levels really powered the team, and he also was usually matched up with the opposing center. This is the real tricky wicket for the Buckeyes this year. Liddell, at 6’7’’, was overmatched trying to defend the Kofi Cockburns and Hunter Dickinsons of the world. On the flip side, those guys had little chance guarding him on the perimeter, which is what made OSU’s offense so strong and their defense so weak. Liddell won’t be asked to to do that this year, and the effect on the team is to be determined.
Kyle Young also returns as a super senior. He has always been the junkyard dog of the team - willing to defend and get rebounds and score on putbacks. He began to show a bit of an offensive game last year - some nifty post moves and a three point shot. There’s part of me that thinks he has enough talent to be a real two way player for the Buckeyes, but that is probably optimistic. In any event, he won’t have to play as many minutes this year, so he should stay healthy. Kalen Etzler is a freshman forward with the reputation of a shooter, but he plans to redshirt this season.
Zed Key returns. His true freshman season was fun - the man loves finger guns and fixing cars. He should provide some reliable post offense and a bit of rim protection, even if he’s only 6’8’’. Indiana transfer Joey Brunk adds something too. Finally, the Buckeyes have a a guy who is over 6’8’’ who can at least be tall against the bigger centers of the conference. If nothing else, he can foul a lot and save Liddell the trouble of having to guard guys six inches taller.
The conference doesn’t look to be the meat grinder it has been the past couple years, but it is still plenty tough. The Bucks are listed as 8th on KenPom and 11th on Bart Torvik Dot Com. That’s good! But only good for 4th in the conference, with Illinois, Purdue, and Michigan getting the top spots on each service. All three of those teams feature dominant big men, something OSU simply doesn’t have.
Of course, having a dominant big man is something that has dwindled in value. The Buckeyes split with all those teams last year, and even their losses were pretty danged competitive. Going small made the Buckeyes a contender in the conference, even if ultimately the defense doomed them.
So bigger they must get, not just to make the defense better, but to also feature E.J. Liddell in more natural positions for the NBA. Can the Buckeyes win without using Liddell as a stretch five while breaking in a new backcourt? I’m not sure, but Holtmann has been a master of seemingly making ill-fitting parts come together on the court.
OTE forecasts are still coming in, but everyone so far predicts the Buckeyes to go 13-7 in the conference and hit 21 or 22 wins. That’s a pretty safe projection - with the bottom of the conference looking notably weaker, probably a bit easier to get wins in conference, but their non-con schedule is tough. They are going to have a swiss army knife type of team that should be able to match up with everyone they play, but the lack of top flight talent limits their ability to play for a B1G or NCAA championship.
So, my predictions:
- Jamari Wheeler is in the mix for Defensive Player of the Year
- E.J. Liddell finishes second team B1G, as does Justice Sueing
- Buckeyes finish 21-10 and 13-7 in conference
- They hit the Elite 8 in the Tourney