Key Departures: Duane Washington (NBA); CJ Walker (Grad); Musa Jallow (–>Charlotte)
New In Town: Jamari Wheeler (<–Penn St); Joey Brunk (<–Indiana); Cedric Russell (<–Louisiana) Malaki Branham (#36); Kalen Etzler (#152)
State of the Program:
The Buckeyes got out to a hot start a year ago as they rode a lethal offense headed by Duane Washington Jr and EJ Liddell to an 18-4 start, looking like one of the top contenders in the country. Ultimately, their defensive woes caught up to them, as they ended the season 3-6, capped off by a first round loss to 15-seed Oral Roberts in the big dance. Chris Holtmann had to be disappointed all season long by the team’s unwillingness to consistently engage defensively, something rarely seen by a Holtmann lead team. His first 3 years at the helm they were no worse than 25th in defensive efficiency. Last season they finished 82nd and it was put on full display as they got smacked around by Kevin Obanor and Max Abmas, who put up 59 combined points in that thrilling 1st round loss. The good news for this Buckeyes program is they get 1st team All-Conference EJ Liddell (JR) back to lead a very talented group of returning players. Another bit of good news is Washington and Walker both leave after being the worst defenders on the team, so a return to quality defensive play might be in order. Joining Liddell to form one of the oldest groups in the Big Ten are F Justice Sueing (SR), F/C Kyle Young (SR), G Justin Ahrens (SR), F Seth Towns (SR), C Zed Key (SO), G/F Eugene Brown III (SO), and G Meechie Johnson Jr (SO). That gives Holtmann 8 returning pieces, 6 of which had large roles a season ago for a team that was a 2 seed in the tournament so expectations are high once again in Columbus.
Holtmann immediately addressed the defensive inefficiencies by going and getting 2x Big Ten All-Defensive Team G Jamari Wheeler (SR) from Penn St. Big Ten guards know Wheeler well, and he should come in and replace Walker as the primary PG and hopefully lead by example in terms of his defensive energy. C Joey Brunk (SR) also transfers intra-conference to rejoin his old Coach at Butler, and looks to provide depth at the 5. I would expect Young and Key to get the majority of the minutes there, however the Buckeyes were beaten up inside pretty bad by the Conferences elite big men last year, so Holtmann may be eyeing Brunk as a guy to go to battle with the likes of Trevion Williams, Kofi Cockburn, and Hunter Dickinson with the idea of going to a big lineup in those matchups. The last transfer is G Cedric Russell (SR) out of Louisiana. Russell was 1st Team All-Conference in the Sun Belt and averaged 17 ppg shooting 40% from 3 at a high volume. He will likely try and fill the playmaking void left behind by Washington, and could start in the backcourt or be a sparkplug off the bench in a 6th man role. 6’5” G Malaki Branham (#36) leads the Freshman group and looks primed to come in and have an impact with this team. He excels at finishing above the rim and even shows a nice looking stroke from outside that should help him develop into a go-to guy for the Buckeyes in the years to come. He will battle sophomore’s Brown and Johnson for a backup G role and I like him to outperform both of them and earn backup minutes. PF Kalen Etzler (#152) will find himself on the outside looking in and will likely redshirt, so we’ll evaluate his skillset and impact next year.
A lot of depth again this year for Holtmann, with a lot of returning veteran talent to continue to build with. The trio of Liddell, Sueing, and Young should start every game if healthy, at the 3/4/5 spots. That leaves the backcourt open, and I’d expect Wheeler and Ahrens as the veterans to get the start there. Russell, and in my opinion Branham, will probably emerge as the backups, with Russell even playing starters minutes if he’s hot. Key and Brunk figure to get the backup minutes up front, especially against the bigger Conference teams as I mentioned earlier. Liddell is a superstar that will control the offense, and I like him to emerge as an All-American and lead this group unequivocally. I’ve always likened him to former Gamecock and March superstar Sindarious Thornwell, and I can see him putting on that type of performance this season. Sueing will get the chance to expand his game and be a great Robin to Liddell’s Batman, helping to shoulder the load. All of this provides the Buckeyes with more than enough firepower to contend again at the top of the Conference and the country. My focus will solely be on their defense and how, if at all, it improves this year. If they can work back towards the top-25 defense they were prior to last year I think that more than makes up for the loss of Duane Washington’s scoring, and I think they will fare way better down the stretch and into March. If that doesn’t happen it will be more heartbreak, because as I always say if you don’t defend you don’t win in March. I do look for the D to improve and for Ohio St to contend and make a March run.