196 days ago, we watched a dejected, stunned Ohio State team walk off the floor in West Lafayette, having just been upset in historic fashion at the hands of Oral Roberts. After six months of marinating in the aftertaste of that head-turning loss, the Buckeyes took the court on Monday evening for the first time, albeit in a non-official, non-stat counting exhibition against a Division II opponent.
With Kyle Young (vestibular disfunction), Seth Towns (back), and Justice Sueing (groin) out, Ohio State went with a starting five of Meechie Johnson, Jamari Wheeler, Justin Ahrens, E.J. Liddell, and Zed Key. Indianapolis countered with Kendrick Tchoua, Jesse Bingham, Dee Montgomery, Cory Miller Jr., and Jakobie Robinson.
Ohio State began the game — fittingly — with a three pointer courtesy of Ahrens. Inspired by his teammate’s range, Johnson took a similar shot from the opposite corner moments later to give Ohio State a 6-2 lead. Not to be outdone, Key (yes, you’re reading that correctly) hoisted one on the following possession, and it clanged out. Key was promptly removed from the game in favor of Indiana transfer Joey Brunk.
The Buckeyes continued to hoist early and often, going 3-for-10 from beyond the arc over the first 10 minutes of the game. True freshman Malaki Branham had back-to-back buckets at one point in the early going, and Wheeler had a steal and coast-to-coast layup — exactly the type of energy that the Buckeyes were hoping they’d get from him when he transferred from Penn State.
The Buckeyes led 41-25 at halftime, paced by Key’s 10 points and seven rebounds. Branham, Johnson, and Eugene Brown all scored seven or more points for Ohio State in the first half. The Buckeyes’ offense looked disjointed at times, which could partially be attributed to them missing three key contributors. When Liddell was off the floor, every player not named Johnson appeared a bit hesitant to shoot.
Their first-half defense was stout, however, holding Indianapolis to 25 points on 37% shooting and forcing 10 Greyhound turnovers.
Ohio State opened the second half on an 21-3 run, fueled by nine points from Liddell and three apiece from Johnson, Ahrens, Wheeler, and Branham. The offense settled down quite a bit, perhaps not coincidentally due to the Buckeyes conscious effort to feed the ball to Liddell.
Things continued to snowball out of control from there. Ohio State doubled up Indianapolis 74-37 by the 5:24 mark, as their D-II rivals were simply outmanned and frankly out-skilled. Ohio State’s final lineup of the night — which we would assume is the very back of the bench — was comprised of Eugene Brown, Jimmy Sotos, Cedric Russell, Kalen Etzler, and Harrison Hookfin.
When the final buzzer sounded and the dogs had been called off, Ohio State walked away with an 82-46 victory in their final tune-up for the regular season. They were led by Eugene Brown’s 15 points, but four other Buckeyes (Johnson, Key, Liddell, and Branham) also scored in double digits.
What can we take away from this blowout? Well..
Jamari Wheeler and Meechie Johnson are your PG/SG combo
Wheeler and Johnson have been working out quite a bit together this offseason, and head coach Chris Holtmann is certainly hoping that chemistry carries over to the court against Akron in the official seaosn opener. The fifth-year senior and “bonus” freshman came out the gate wanting to move quickly, as they took turns bringing the ball up and often found each other at the top of the key when the offense was in need of a reset.
Wheeler also found Johnson down the court directly after a made Indianapolis basket, catching the Greyhound defense napping for an easy layup. As Louisiana transfer guard Cedric Russell continues to adjust to the Big Ten, it’s looking like Johnson and Wheeler will be your guard duo to begin the season.
Meechie Johnson was not shy with the rock
After never taking more than three shots in a game as a freshman, Johnson took five shots over the first 4:03 of this game, hitting two of them for five total points. After his third miss, Holtmann pulled his energetic freshman guard. Johnson looked confident and 2-of-5 shooting is noting to sneeze at, but Holtmann probably does not want him hoisting 40 shots per game.
Branham and Sotos are ahead of Cedric Russell in the pecking order... for now
Unless it was due to an undisclosed injury, it looks like Cedric Russell isn’t just behind Johnson on the depth chart, but he is also behind Branham and redshirt senior Jimmy Sotos.
Branham checked in at the under-16 media timeout, and scored seven points in 15 first-half minutes. Sotos played three minutes in the opening stanza, while Russell did not check in at all during the first half. It was an exhibition against a Division II opponent, so you’d think if the coaching staff wanted to get Russell thrown into some live action, this was the game to do it.
Zed Key is your center
Brunk was brought in this season to provide depth in the front court, but the battle for the starting center spot looked to be up in the air as we inched closer to Monday’s game. Well, not only did Key start, he also outpaced Brunk in minutes, 21 to 9.
Key has more upside and energy at the position, so it will not be surprising if Brunk plays more of a backup center role for Key and Liddell (and eventually Young) vs. an every game starter.
Is Malaki Branham the second option on offense if Sueing and Young continue to miss time?
If Sueing and Young continue to sit due to injury, it’s quite possible that freshman guard Branham becomes Ohio State’s second-best option on offense. He took mostly high percentage shots, did not look rushed, and showed the ability to score at all three levels. Ideally Sueing returns for the Akron game, but if not, Branham may see some plays designed to get him the ball.
Jamari Wheeler’s defense is as advertised
My preseason pick for Big Ten defensive player of the year, Wheeler went at the Indianapolis guards with the tenacity of a gnat at a picnic.
Even when he wasn’t forcing turnovers, he was making his DII opponents look unbelievably uncomfortable, pressing as soon as the ball was brought over the half court line and closing out on any and every shooter he was within 20 feet of.
While he may not contribute a ton on offense, he is going to give Ohio State additional opportunities on that side of the court due to what he does on the defensive end.
Joey Brunk just missed a nine-trillion
This isn’t something we learned, more so over-served. The fifth-year senior missed all of last season with a back injury, and he looked... less than smooth... on the floor against Indianapolis.
Brunk fouled out after playing just nine minutes without attempting a field goal, but he did grab two rebounds and block a shot. Ohio State is going to need Brunk to play smarter on the defensive end, especially with Young out indefinitely.
Ohio State needs to find their identity beyond E.J. Liddell
The last thing Holtmann wants is a repeat of the 2018 and 2019 seasons, when any Ohio State lineup that didn’t include Kaleb Wesson looked lost at sea. With Duane Washington Jr. gone, E.J. Liddell is without a doubt “the guy,” much like Wesson was those two years.
However, with Young out indefinitely and Sueing out tonight (hopefully will have more on him soon), the Buckeyes need to identify their supplementary scorers — and fast. When Sueing and Young are in the game, they’re likely in the top three or four options offensively. With both seniors out, Ohio State will need contributions from one — or several — others until they are healthy.
With their exhibition game now in the books, Ohio State has one full week off before their first official game against Akron on Nov. 9. The Zips went 15-8 last season and 12-6 in MAC play.
Akron lost their leading scorer and All-MAC First Team honoree Loren Cristian Jackson, but returns their second through fourth leading scorers (Bryan Trimble Jr., Enrique Freeman, and Ali Ali) under fifth-year head coach and former Ohio State assistant John Groce.
Ohio State’s season opener against Akron tips off at 6:00 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN2.