For months and months, I’ve been taking any little morsel of basketball news I could get my hands on and running with it until there were no angles left to examine. From Carmen’s Crew’s (short) TBT run to 2022 commits to Duane Washington Jr. entering the NBA Draft, the college basketball off-season can get really dry at times, and I had to milk each bit of news for as long as I could.
Thankfully, those days are over.
In exactly one week, Ohio State will face Indianapolis in an exhibition match at home in front of a crowd for the first time in 20 months. Eight days later, the Buckeyes will welcome Akron to the Schottentstein Center for their home opener, and the college hoops season will be off and running. We’ll have real games to talk about for the first time since March, and hopefully we’ll be talking about how good the Buckeyes look in their first few real games.
Ohio State was great last season, finishing fifth in the Big Ten and earning a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament. They also went on quite a run in the conference tournament, winning three games in three days, setting up a championship matchup with Illinois on the final day. The Buckeyes pushed Illinois to the brink, leading in overtime before falling to the Illini 91-88 in the extra period. We all know what happened in the NCAA Tournament directly after that, so we won’t go there. The point is — Ohio State had a very good season overall.
Gone from that team is leading scorer Duane Washington Jr. — the fuel behind Ohio State’s B1G tournament run and one of the streakiest scorers in program history. Someone will need to step up in his absence, either individually or collectively. Washington now plays for the Indiana Pacers.
Ohio State will also need to replace the contributions of point guard CJ Walker, who graduated and now plays overseas. While he was not a go-to scorer for the Buckeyes, he did hit double-digits in 17 of Ohio State’s 31 games, and was relatively dependable with the ball in his hands, reflected by his 2.2:1 assist to turnover ratio.
Those are the two biggest things that come to mind, and will be listed below as well. But there are several questions that will need to be answered in the coming weeks if this team wants to approach last season’s success. With my “This is Bob Marley” mix playing on Spotify, I’ll highlight the most pressing questions:
Who starts at center?
It’s become pretty widely-known at this point that Ohio State does not want E.J. Liddell to log many minutes at center this season if they can help it. Rather, they want one of Joey Brunk, Zed Key, or perhaps Kyle Young to start at the five, allowing Liddell to line up with someone a bit smaller and play the four. Between Young’s injuries and Key’s inexperience last season, Liddell wound up defending the Kofi Cockburn’s and Hunter Dickinson’s of the conference more often than not. Clearly he made it work based on his 16.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, but in general, Chris Holtmann does not want Liddell playing the center position.
The problem is, I don’t love any of those three at center full-time. Joey Brunk provides a nice depth piece coming off the bench at 6-foot-11, but I think Ohio State will be a worse offensive team with him in the lineup. Kyle Young puts in more effort than anyone else on the floor and is more skilled offensively than Brunk or Key, but at 6-foot-8 he’s not much bigger than Liddell, and really does not bring more defensive value to that position than Liddell does.
Key is probably the smartest choice here because he’s the closest to a “true” center, but at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, he isn’t as big as half the centers in the conference. I also cannot envision a world where Young does not start this season. I’m not sure how or where, but I don’t think Young returns for a fifth season if there wasn’t some reassurance that he’d still get those consistent minutes.
I think size-wise Brunk makes the most sense, but I don’t love any three of these guys starting at center if Ohio State’s expectations are to win a national championship.
Who starts at both guard spots?
As noted above, Ohio State lost both starting guards in CJ Walker (graduated) and Duane Washington Jr. (drafted). Washington led the team in shot attempts and scoring last season, while Walker was more of a floor general who also could get a bucket if need be. Ohio State — and Ohio State fans — will miss those guys this season, even if they don’t realize it yet.
The vacancies in the starting lineup could be filled by several guys, and even once the season begins, the starting five could change. It seems former Penn State point guard Jamari Wheeler will start the season at point guard. Wheeler transferred to Ohio State following Jim Ferry’s dismissal at Penn State, and will bring a skillset more similar to Buckeye great Aaron Craft than to Walker. He is a vicious and unrelenting defender, but his offensive toolbox is limited and he isn’t as much of a distributor as Walker, either.
The second guard spot will be the one to really keep an eye on. When Cedric Russell transferred to Ohio State from Louisiana-Lafayette this summer, the case seemed closed that he would fill in Washington’s spot. But Russell has struggled at practice so far, so perhaps this is not a given. Earlier this summer, former Ohio State guard Joey Lane told us he expects Jimmy Sotos to start — at least initially.
And we can’t forget about Malaki Branham, the stud freshman from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, who will also be competing for minutes. I would not be shocked if he started at some point, either.
What will we see from Seth Towns?
At this point, I have no idea what a “healthy” Seth Towns looks like. I think it’s safe to say we won’t ever see the Ivy League Player of the Year, 20 points per game Seth Towns again. Last season, Towns averaged 3.8 points per game in just under 11 minutes per contest. During his best season at Harvard, he averaged roughly four times that many points and three times as many minutes per game.
Clearly Towns is not getting back to that level, but we also know that he was only playing at “roughly 60%” last season as his surgically-repaired knee continued to heal. The good news is that Towns’ knee is fully healed, and according to Chris Holtmann, Towns’ knee is “as good as it’s been since he got to Ohio State.” The bad news is that Towns underwent a minor back surgery last month, and will miss the first six to eight weeks of the season.
So, when Towns returns, will he be fully healthy? If so, he will either force himself into the starting lineup (he is that good) or he’ll wind up being one of the most lethal bench weapons in the country. A healthy Seth Towns could elevate Ohio State from one of the best teams in the Big Ten to the best team in the Big Ten, potentially.
Or will he continue to be hampered by some combination of the knee and back for the rest of the season? Even playing compromised, Towns has shown to still be very useful off the bench. But there is a stark difference between a healthy Towns and his 60% version we saw last season. I promise.
What kind of player is Meechie Johnson?
First off, let’s get this straight — anything you saw from Meechie Johnson last season should be taken with a grain of salt. Watching from home, there were definitely some moments where he gave me the “playing pickup basketball in someone’s driveway” vibe. He took some bad shots — sometimes he made them — but they were bad shots, nonetheless. He allowed the game to speed up on him, which led to bad shots or passes. There’s a reason he only played six minutes per game, and registered a few DNP’s down the stretch.
But what did you expect from a kid who left high school early to jump into a Big Ten title race at age 17? He also missed a whole year of high school basketball due to an injury, so he was jumping into college basketball with considerable rust to shake off. Some bumps were expected. He played a key role, though, as Ohio State was very bare in the backcourt at times and he was able to give Chris Holtmann some emergency minutes at both guard spots.
The asterisk we put next to Meechie Johnson last season is gone now. He allegedly put on 10 pounds this offseason, and is ready to be a key contributor for the Buckeyes. But how will he contribute, exactly? He played so little last season that it’s difficult to tell if Johnson will be more of a shooting guard like Washington, or a pure point guard like Walker.
He has oodles of talent and will be fun to watch, but I don’t think anyone really knows what the Buckeyes have in Johnson yet.
Will they figure out the defense?
A fundamentally sound, hands-on defense has been a staple of Chris Holtmann’s Ohio State teams ever since he arrived in 2017. Every season until last year, that is.
From 2017-2020, Ohio State was 25th or better in defensive efficiency every single year. The Buckeyes had the type of defense that made you short of breath just by watching, and they did not make mental mistakes leading to open shots. That changed last season.
During the 2020-2021 season, Ohio State was No. 82 in defensive efficiency. Not only were the Buckeyes undersized at center and struggled with big men at times, they also made silly mental mistakes that led to too many open shots. Not stepping up on a switch, not helping on drives (in man-to-man), and other errors created far too many open baskets for their opponents. This was on display during Ohio State’s losing streak towards the end of the season, and once again against Oral Roberts during the NCAA Tournament.
Holtmann has said that he wants Ohio State to be top-25 in offense and defense, but does not expect his offense to be quite as dominant as it was last season, when they finished fourth in offensive efficiency. Based on the players they lost and added, I’d expect the offense to step back a bit while the defense improves.
What impact will crowds have?
Approximately half of all college basketball players (freshmen and sophomores) have never played in front of crowds at the collegiate level due to last season being played in mostly-empty arenas. The Schottenstein Center has never been too daunting of a home venue, but transitioning from playing in what was essentially a closed scrimmage to playing in front of 17,000 people will be a big change for all parties involved. It’ll be interesting to see how well Ohio State feeds off the energy of the crowd at home — as well as how they adapt to hostile road environments.
Will the loss to Oral Roberts linger?
Ohio State lost a few faces, but most of last year’s team is back. That means most of the current team walked off the court on March 19 having just been defeated by the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles — a 15-seed in the tournament. That loss dominated the headlines all day long, and dragged on for weeks following.
Chris Holtmann’s Ohio State teams have not advanced to the second weekend of the tournament once yet. Last season was looked at as a golden (no pun intended) opportunity, having earned a 2-seed. It didn’t quite work out. I don’t have to tell you this, but we all know a loss like that sticks with you, and it sticks to your reputation. If the Buckeyes make the NCAA Tournament next season, odds are they’ll face a team they’re favored against, just like they were against Oral Roberts.
I think it’s unlikely that loss has any bearing on this season, and it may even motivate the returning players to not take any particular games for granted. But especially come March, it’ll be interesting to see how this team responds when facing a similar opponent.