The 2020-2021 college basketball season is finally upon us (I hope), but there are still a TON of unanswered questions not just for Ohio State or the Big Ten, but for the sport in general.
Games start in less than two weeks, but schedules still are not set, mainly due to the differences of COVID rules and mandates from state to state. There has not been a word about the NCAA Tournament yet either. Will there be any fans? Will games be held at several neutral site locations, with teams flying across the country several times over the course of 2-3 weeks? Will the NCAA try to “bubble it up” and hold all the games in just a couple specific locations? And WHEN is our lord and savior Seth Towns going to be healthy enough to suit up for the Buckeyes?
There is a bounty of questions that still need to be answered over the next handful of days, but we’re going to narrow it down to a couple, and keep it focused on the Buckeyes. Here are the most pressing matters for Buckeye basketball as we lead up to tipoff at the end of the month:
1) Who is healthy and who isn’t?
This isn’t intended to cause a panic, so we will start with the positives here:
This is the most talented team Chris Holtmann has had since he became the head coach of the Buckeyes. That is a fact.
Kaleb Wesson’s departure is going to force Ohio State to become more creative on the offensive end, which should help key members of this team progress into the types of players we’ve all thought they were capable of becoming. That is a fact.
The injury concerns that accompany this talented roster could very well wipe away the above two statements, and that is assuming COVID-19 doesn’t bite this team at any point. Also a fact.
Ohio State has four players who are still recovering from various types of surgery in the past year or so. Towns (knee), Justice Sueing (foot), Musa Jallow (ankle), and Kyle Young (appendectomy), have all gone under the knife recently, and we won’t know their exact status until we get closer to Dec. 2. In the case of Young, he is almost certainly recovered from getting his appendix out by now, but he also dealt with a nasty high ankle sprain at the end of the season, and he has a history of lower body injuries that have lasted his whole collegiate career.
Holtmann recently said that Jallow and Towns likely won’t be ready to play when Ohio State takes on Morehead State on Dec. 2 (or whenever they play their first game, who really knows at this point).
Chris Holtmann says Seth Towns has made "good progress" but he doesn't think he will be ready to play games by late November.— Colin Hass-Hill (@chasshill) October 2, 2020
Musa Jallow hasn't been cleared yet and hasn't been able to participate in workouts yet. Justice Sueing has been fully cleared.
Sueing, a transfer from Cal who sat out all of last season per the NCAA’s transfer rule, had foot surgery last winter. He is allegedly operating at 100%, but we won’t know for certain how that foot holds up until the real games begin.
Young doesn’t enter the season with one specific injury concern. However, he has sustained serious injuries to both legs the past two seasons, including a high ankle sprain to the right leg and a stress fracture in his left. It seems that he’s healthy right now, and ideally it stays that way. But with his history, he is one to keep an eye on.
If these four guys are feeling good by say, mid-December? Then this a dangerous team. But if any combination of them miss extended time there will be issues, especially in the post.
2) What kind of player is E.J. Liddell going to be?
Here are the stat lines for Liddell’s final two games of last season against Illinois and Michigan State, respectively:
- 27 MIN, 17 PTS, 11 REB, 2 AST, 1 BLK, 1 STL, 7-9 FG
- 29 MIN, 12 PTS, 4 REB, 2 STL, 4-9 FG
And here are the stat lines for Liddell’s two games immediately before that, against Nebraska and Michigan:
- 20 MIN, 8 PTS, 5 REB, 5 BLK, 3-10 FG
- 17 MIN, 4 PTS, 4 REB, 1 AST, 2-4 FG
So, the question really is, which E.J. Liddell is his “final form?” Do we have a Jared Sullinger-type on our hands, who can give you 10 points, 10 rebounds, and a few blocks every single game? Because in those final two games of last season, that is exactly what it looked like.
Or will Liddell revert back to how he played throughout most of the season — providing the Buckeyes with solid defense and rim protection, but often deferring shots to everyone else? Obviously, Liddell can take over a game all on his own, as he showed against Illinois on senior day. The energy he brings to both ends of the floor can’t be understated either.
In a game that is ultimate decided by which team goes on more “runs”, stemming the tide and snatching the momentum back can be the difference between winning by two or losing by two. And boy, can E.J. Liddell bring the energy.
Some media outlets expect Liddell to really break out this year, and I’m inclined to agree with them. Lindy’s Sports included him in their preseason All-Big Ten team, placing him next to his new teammate Seth Towns on the All-B1G Third Team. If Liddell breaks out this season and you add him to the arensal of weapons this team already has (if healthy), Ohio State will be able to compete with any team in the Big Ten.
3) Are we going to get a schedule at some point? Please?
Ohio State’s schedule was all but set a week ago, but the Buckeyes had to pull out of the Crossover Classic (AKA the Battle 4 Atlantis) because the state of Ohio included South Dakota on a list of states where all Ohioans must quarantine for 14 days after returning. For a college basketball team that practices every day and plays 2-3 times per week, well, that’s not going to work. The Dayton Flyers pulled out of this tournament for the same reason.
This brings the Buckeyes schedule back to 24 games, and the NCAA maximum is 27. On Wednesday, Holtmann admitted he has doubts that the Buckeyes will be able to finish a complete season uninterrupted. “I’m putting a 27-game schedule together,” he said, “But I don’t think we’re going to play 27 games.”
Right now, Ohio State has Morehead State and Alabama State listed on their schedule as home nonconference games. They will then hit the road to face Notre Dame in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and wrap things up by facing North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic in Cleveland on Dec. 19. Aside from those four games, the Buckeyes still have their 20-game Big Ten schedule.
So what happens with the three empty spots? The NCAA Tournament selection committee judges the total body of work, so leaving games on the table would not be a wise move. Chris Holtmann could try to schedule a few more cupcake games at home to limit travel, or he could try to organize a small tournament in Columbus to fill those slots.
More and more teams are beginning to host “MTE’s” (multi-team events) so that they can get to the maximum amount of games without traveling all over the place. The Buckeyes could potentially host a tournament and invite Dayton, who also had to pull out of the Crossover Classic, and have those games happen over the Thanksgiving weekend to kick off college basketball in Ohio.
While they’re at it, why not call former Ohio State assistant and current Ohio University head coach Jeff Boals and invite the Bobcats too? Perhaps round it off with Toledo or Xavier? An all-Ohio MTE over the Thanksgiving weekend would be a great way to get college basketball started in the Buckeye state. And now that I’ve thought of it, I won’t accept anything else. Get it done, Holtmann.
And finally, when will the conference schedule come out? Games begin in less than two weeks, so the clock is really ticking for the Big Ten to release the conference schedules. It remains to be seen if the B1G will schedule games as they always have, with games happening both on the weekends as well on during the week, or if they’ll opt to bunch games together and have teams play both of their yearly matchups back-to-back, in one location.
The motivation behind this is to limit travel and the risk of getting players and coaches sick. For example, Penn State may travel to Columbus on a Friday, and the two teams play Friday night and Sunday afternoon at the Schottenstein Center. Ohio State would not travel to State College after this. It would conclude the games between the two teams for the season. On another weekend, Ohio State might travel to a different road venue and play two games, so that opposing team would not come to Columbus the rest of the season.
Is it fair? Not really, but if it means we get through a full season then I’m all for it.