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Five things we learned from No. 23 Ohio State’s 74-64 win over UMass Lowell

The Buckeyes won a hotly contested game at the Covelli Center on Sunday afternoon.

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

This weekend, the Ohio State football Buckeyes did not get to play, but the men’s basketball team did get to mix it up as they hosted the UMass Lowell River Hawks not at the Schottenstein Center, not at St. John Arena, but — for the first time ever — at the Covelli Center.

Perhaps it was the fact that UMass Lowell played in the venue against Illinois State on Saturday, but the Buckeyes did not look comfortable in their “home” arena on Sunday. Tied at 33 at halftime, the Red Hawks ran out to a 50-45 lead in the second half, but thanks to a 9-0 run for OSU in middle of the second 20 minutes — aided by a Justice Sueing fastbreak which also involved a UMass Lowell technical foul — Chris Holtmann’s reconfigured roster took control of the game before eventually racing out to a 74-64 victory.

This game was a grind throughout, but a handful of adjustments and hard-nosed efforts allowed the Buckeyes to stay undefeated in the early season.

This is not a three-point shooting team.

This year’s Ohio State team is constructed much differently than last year’s squad, both in terms of personnel, but also in offensive focus. In the abbreviated 2019-20 season, 34.7 percent of OSU’s points (24.1 of 70.1 per game) came from three-point shooting. They led the Big Ten in three-point percentage in conference games and finished 23rd nationally.

However, in their opener against Illinois State on Wednesday, Chris Holtmann’s squad attempted only 18 threes (hitting six), down from their average of 22.6 attempts and 8.4 makes last year. Against the River Hawks on Sunday, the Buckeyes didn’t connect on their first triple until 14:40 left in regulation after missing the first 11. OSU finished the game going just 4-of-18 (22.2%) from distance.

Holtmann is now without three of his top-four three-point shooters in terms of percentage from last year in both Wesson brothers and D.J. Carton (throw in Luther Muhammad and it’s four of the top six). In general, OSU is very thin in the back court, so this year’s emphasis will have to be far more on getting the ball to the wings and bigs, especially down low (more on that later).

While there are certainly guards on this team that are capable of scoring (and shooting from downtown), it seems likely that the attempts, makes, and percentage from beyond the arc will be down significantly this season, and OSU is going to have to adjust accordingly. OSU’s best returning three-pointer shooter Duane Washington Jr. did lead all scorers with 21 points, but was ice cold for most of the game from distance; connecting on only 3-of-11 from beyond the arc on the day.

The Buckeyes’ lack of a deep-threat against the River Hawks was especially noticeable as the visitors were dropping down into a zone, clogging the middle of the floor — especially after the OSU bigs got them out to an early double-digit lead. As the competition increases — especially in conference season — it will be important for Ohio State to be able to find ways to score from distance if opposing defenses pack the middle.

Guys like Washington, Justin Ahrens, and CJ Walker are going to have to spread the floor by connecting from deep — or at least semi-deep — to open up the lane for the posts and cutters.

Of course as our own basketball expert Connor Lemons noted, they very well might have a three-point weapon joining the rotation in December or January (or February or March or maybe 2021-22) as well.

Uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns

Chris Holtmann’s teams have always been characterized by playing tough, fundamentally-sound defense. That was not the case on Sunday against UMass Lowell. Perhaps it is explainable by being so early in this very weird season, and OSU having to contend with so many different players being integrated into the game plan this year, but there were far too many examples of Buckeye defenders being out of position, missing assignments, and just plain looking confused at times.

This was most obvious in the River Hawks three-point shooting. They hit 11-of-30 from deep, but thanks to a good scheme full of picks and screens, the Buckeye guards and wings had to do a lot of switching, and far too often, they switched wrong, leaving UMass Lowell’s shooters with open looks at the basket, and easy lanes to the hoop.

As part of the run around the 10-minute mark in the second half, OSU started switching on every single screen, no matter who was involved. What this does is remove any confusion about what a defender is supposed to do, and when he is supposed to leave his man. The straight-forward change allowed the Buckeye defense to be a little crisper, eliminating the need to for players to make split-second decisions, and allowing defenders to just go out and guard, whomever they might end up being matched up against.

Eventually, you would like to see this team be able to execute more complicated defensive plans, but for now, the K.I.S.S. method seems to work best.

Ohio State’s posts are all in the Jared Sullinger model.

A lot has been made about the fact that amongst the players likely to see the floor on a regular basis (no offense Ibrahima Diallo), no one on OSU’s roster is taller than 6-foot-8. In a conference that often celebrates the dominance of its bigs, the Buckeyes are rolling out a front court of below-the-rim posts.

Now, we have seen that be effective for the Buckeyes in the past with players like Jared Sullinger and Kaleb Wesson — although it does not appear that any of this team’s bigs are nearly as talented as either of those two are.

However, the athleticism and versatility should help cover some of that talent gap. The natural heir to the Aaron Craft/Andre Wesson hustle and glue crown, Kyle Young shows that effort and fundamentals can be effective down low on offense.

We saw examples of the same type of thing on the other side of the court as well. Freshman Zed Key looked good early on offense (hitting three of OSU’s first five baskets), but really flexed his muscle on the defensive end; helping on the driver and then getting back to his man in time to go straight up and disrupt the shot.

There is still a lot of gelling that this newly reconfigured front court is going to have to do before they hit the B1G slate, but there are a lot of talented guys who do complementary things, and from my perspective, there is every reason to be optimistic about what these bigs could accomplish this season.

In Sunday’s game against the River Hawks, OSU finished with a decisive 30-18 advantage in the paint, which helped balance out the visitor’s sizable edge from behind the arc.

Jimmy Sotos likes to foul, and that’s a problem.

Initially, Bucknell transfer Jimmy Sotos was ruled ineligible to play during the 2020-21 season for Ohio State, but won his appeal against the NCAA meaning that the Buckeyes gained another much-needed body. With a depleted back court, the Buckeyes will have to call upon the veteran guard to spell Walker and Washington throughout the season. But, in the opener against Illinois State, Sotos played 10 minutes, missed his only shot, had a pair of assists, a single rebound, but — most notably — accumulated five fouls. Let me repeat. Jimmy Sotos fouled out in 10 minutes of action in his Ohio State debut.

In his second game as a Buckeye, the Bucknell transfer played two minutes in the first half, picking up two fouls — meaning that he lowered his foul per minute average from one every two minutes to one per minute before halftime. Sotos picked up his second foul at the 9:23 mark, and then didn’t play again until the second half, finishing with just seven minutes of action and those two fouls.

Holtmann is going to have to get more out of him as the season progresses if he is going to be able to keep his starting guards sharp.

The Moose was — very much — not so loose.

After sitting out the entirety of the 2019-20, Musa Jallow returned to the Buckeye lineup in their season opener on Wednesday. He only played 12 minutes and didn’t score, but seeing him back on the floor was encouraging for OSU fans.

While we knew that he likely wouldn’t be 100% at the start of the season, his defensive talent is incredibly valuable to the style of basketball that Chris Holtmann likes to see from his teams. However, on Sunday, not only did Jallow not see the floor, but he was also sporting a walking boot.

We don’t have any updates on his status, and the boot of course could just be precautionary, but given the Moose’s injury history, this is not an ideal situation for the Buckeyes.

Bonus: Justice Sueing is legit

The Cal transfer only scored four points in the first half on 1-of-5 shooting, but when his team needed him most, he turned it on in the last 10 minutes of the game, going 3-for-4 after halftime and accounting for 11 in the second half. He put up 19 in his first game in the scarlet and gray, and it’s looking like he will rightly be one of the backbones for this year’s team.

After some unexpected start and stops, I am back to posting a column every single day from preseason camp until whenever Ohio State’s football season ends. Some days they will be longer and in depth, some days they will be short and sweet. Let me know what you think of this one, and what you’d like to see me discuss in the comments or on Twitter. Go Bucks!