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Keys to the Game: Ohio State dominates Illinois State 94-67 in opener

The Buckeyes began their season with a big W on Wednesday afternoon.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois State at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

We didn’t know if we would ever get here for certain with all the craziness that has been 2020, but college basketball is officially back! Chris Holtmann had to rebuild his roster this offseason, and we got to see the fruits of his labor in action for the first time on Wednesday afternoon, as Ohio State opened their season with a 94-67 win over Illinois State.

The Buckeyes came out of the gate with a vengeance, scoring the game’s first 22 points before the Redbirds even got on the board, and from there they really never looked back. Justice Sueing was phenomenal in his OSU debut, leading the team with 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting to go along with eight rebounds and three steals. As a team, Ohio State shot just under 50% from the floor, sharing the sugar all game long as they finished with 17 assists.

The starting five

We weren’t quite sure heading into the season who would crack the starting lineup for this new-look Ohio State roster. With Kaleb Wesson and Andre Wesson having moved on and a handful of transfers leaving in the offseason, spots have certainly opened up. Chris Holtmann has a lot of talented pieces to work with this year, and there is a lot of freedom in how exactly he will deploy them.

In game one of the new campaign, the Buckeyes rolled out a starting five of CJ Walker and Duane Washington Jr. in the guard spots — as expected — with the trio of Justice Sueing, E.J. Liddell and Kyle Young in the front court. For Sueing, it was his Ohio State debut after sitting out all of last season per NCAA transfer rules. No real surprises in the starting unit to begin the year, as the team also debuted its new jerseys for the first time.

Liddell slammed home of the first basket of the season, and we were underway.

Midseason form

Some teams may get out to a slow start in their first game of the season — especially after a weird start-and-stop, pandemic-induced offseason. That was not the case for Ohio State, as they opened up the floodgates right from the get-go.

The Buckeyes started the afternoon on a 22-0 run. On the offensive end, Liddell scored the team’s first five points on the opening dunk and an and-one layup shortly thereafter. OSU hit on three of their first five attempts from downtown, including Sueing and Washington each connecting on early 3-pointers. Sueing was the hot hand early, hitting his first three shots in a scarlet and gray jersey to help spark the run.

The defense looked unbreakable early on as well, forcing the Redbirds to start off shooting 0-for-9 from the field while also turning the ball over four times. Holtmann’s group was locking down with some aggressive man defense, actively talking and switching as they kept Illinois State in check for more than six minutes of action. It wasn’t until the 13:36 mark in the period that the Redbirds got their first point of the game at the free throw line.

Running out of steam

It was a strong half overall for Ohio State, but the team looked like they tired out just before the end of the opening period. Illinois State was able to head into the break on a 7-0 run, as the Buckeyes did not score for the final 2:57 of the first period. OSU hit just one of its last seven shots from the field before heading into the locker room, while the Redbirds hit 9-of-15 after their slow start.

Even still, the early run for Ohio State was far too much to overcome in the first 20 minutes, as Holtmann’s squad headed into the break leading 42-25. The story of the half was points in the paint, where the Buckeyes held a 24-6 advantage. OSU moved the ball really well in the period, finishing with eight assists while shooting 47% from the field. Seven different players had at least three points at the half.

Court is in session

Listen, excuse my puns, but if you’re going to throw a guy at me whose first AND last name are both courtroom words, you can’t expect me to hold back.

Justice Sueing transferred to Ohio State last year after being the best player at Cal in the 2018-19 campaign. In his last season with the Golden Bears, Sueing led the team with 14.3 points per game to go along with six rebounds and two assists per contest while shooting over 43% from the floor. Clearly Sueing is a great player, but would his skills transfer to Columbus and a different style of play in the Big Ten?

While Illinois State isn’t exactly the same rough-and-tough matchup you expect to see once you enter B1G play, Sueing passed his first test with the Buckeyes with flying colors. He was the team’s best player in the first half, going a perfect 5-for-5 from the field with 12 points, two boards and a steal in just 11 minutes of play. Ohio State knew they would need to find a new source of scoring with Kaleb Wesson off to pursue his NBA dreams, and Sueing showed signs in game one that he could potentially fill that void.

Going hard in the paint

The front court was really the biggest question mark for Ohio State heading into this season. We’ve talked ad nauseam about the absence of the Wesson brothers, but we also didn’t quite know what to fully expect from the guys who were already on the roster. We hadn’t seen any of Sueing, Young has a history with lower body injuries, and Liddell was just a freshman a year ago. With Seth Towns on the shelf to begin the year, could the Buckeyes find ways to score the rock in the paint?

The answer was a resounding yes, as Ohio State’s bigs — and equally as impressively their guards — were able to score at will from underneath the basket. The Buckeyes outscored the Redbirds 50-14 in the paint. Liddell was really strong in his season debut, scoring 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting almost exclusively from inside 10 feet. Young also added eight points of his own, with most of his points from right around the rim as well.

Ohio State also did quite well in the rebounding department, especially on the offensive boards. The Bucks pulled down 14 offensive rebounds on the afternoon, out-rebounding Illinois State 43-33 overall.

First look at the freshmen

Even before we reached garbage time, coach Holtmann had no problem giving his freshmen some really decent minutes in the first game of the season.

Zed Key led the first-year guys with 12 points — one of five Buckeyes to reach double-digits on the afternoon. He played 17 minutes in the opener, hitting 3-of-4 from the field and knocking down 6-of-9 at the charity stripe. He also hauled in five boards.

Freshman guard Eugene Brown III got to see the floor a good amount as well, scoring three points and pulling down four rebounds in his first game action at Ohio State.