Thank the basketball lords that the basketball season is here. I don’t know about you, but me personally I am sick of hearing about Oral Roberts (although in this preview I might mention Oral Roberts so that’s on me). The 2021-22 college basketball season is underway today and tonight and the Ohio State Buckeyes will take the court against the Akron Zips at home at 6 p.m. on ESPN2.
It has been a long and trying offseason for the Buckeyes, with their season ending abruptly, a couple transfers out and some transfers in.
After the Buckeyes lost to Oral Roberts in the NCAA tournament (see told you I would do it), they lost big man Ibrahima Diallo to San Jose State, defensive specialist Musa Jallow to Charlotte and top scorer Duane Washington Jr to the NBA and the Indiana Pacers.
Offensively, not much was lost in the way of Diallo and Jallow, as they averaged 0.2 points per game and 2.9 points per game, but Jallow was a great defensive player for the Buckeyes and always provided high energy in his minutes on the floor.
Obviously, the big loss on the offensive end was Washington, who averaged a team high 16.4 points per game and also 3.4 rebounds per game and 2.9 assists per game. Due to recency bias, a lot of fans memories of Washington Jr may not be the best but he did keep them in a number of games single handedly last season with his scoring prowess and will be a huge loss for Ohio State. Starting point guard CJ Walker graduated and is pursuing a career overseas.
However, the Buckeyes wasted no time replacing these guys with some talented freshman and transfers.
Penn State guard Jamari Wheeler, Louisiana guard Cedric Russell and Indiana forward Joey Brunk all join the Buckeyes. Brunk is the big man down low that they need and adds some size to the fairly small Buckeyes, Wheeler is an all-conference defensive guy who is a veteran and can run the offense to replace Walker and Russell is the bucket getter they need to help replace Washington.
Freshman Malaki Branham is coming in as last year’s Ohio’s Mr. Basketball from St. Vincent St. Mary’s high school (maybe you have heard of it). Branham likely won’t be the starter right away with him still getting his college legs under him, but he will be one of their top guys off the bench as they need his scoring ability and size on the defensive end as a guard.
Jimmy Sotos and Meechie Johnson will likely split time at the two guard next to Wheeler, but in the exhibition it was Johnson who got the nod to start and that will likely be the case on Tuesday.
Also, in the exhibition and in practice so far, it has been well documented that Brunk and Russell have struggled adjusting a little bit. This is to be expected as Russell is making the jump from the Sun Belt to the Big Ten and Brunk sat out all of last season so he will need some time to readjust.
Zed Key and guard Eugene Brown were the standouts of the exhibition and both will likely take on larger roles than they had last season in the rotation
All in all, even with the loss of Washington, Ohio State has a lot of weapons and are led by Liddell, who is a legitimate Big Ten player of the year and All-American candidate. Ohio State will be in the three to six range of the Big Ten rankings most of the season and in the 10-20 range of the AP Poll throughout the season. It all starts tonight with Akron though.
This is one of the fun games where there is interesting coach history. Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann and Akron head coach John Groce were teammates at Taylor University in their playing days, they graduated the same season and Holtmann was the first assistant coach that Groce hired when took the job at Ohio University.
These two programs don’t play often, but when they do it tends to go in Ohio State’s favor. Ohio State is 7-1 against Akron all time and in their last meeting, defeated the Zips 72-63 in the 2016 NIT.
Akron finished 15-8 overall and 12-6 in the Mid-American Conference last season, good for third in the conference.
Their probably starters include guard Garvin Clarke, guard Bryan Trimble, forward Mikal Dawson, forward Ali Ali and forward Enrique Freeman. Transfer guard KJ Walton will also play heavy minutes, as he averaged 16 points per game and five rebounds per game last season for Ball State.
Akron is retuning three of their top four scorers from last season but will have to replace the production of Loren Christian-Jackson, who was a First-Team All-MAC selection last season after averaging over 22 points per game and six assists per game. Truly one of the top players in the conference last season, Christian-Jackson will be missed.
Trimble averaged 12 points per game last season and was named to the All-MAC honorable mention team. The Zips and Groce will rely on him to take on the leading scorer and captain role.
Ohio State’s projected starters are guard Jamari Wheeler, guard Meechie Johnson Jr, forward Justice Sueing, forward EJ Liddell and forward Zed Key. Super senior Kyle Young is a game time decision with a vestibular dysfunction, but the signs point to him being held out. Sueing is a game time decision as well but he is expected to suit up and play. He suffered a groin injury last season that has lingered into the present. If he is unable to go or the coaching staff decides to hold him out for some reason, we should see Justin Ahrens starting at the small forward position.
Forward Seth Towns is out until likely very late 2021 or early 2022 after undergoing back surgery.
This is a pretty interesting opener and one that will test Ohio State at least for a little bit. Akron is a talented team that will likely finish in the top four in the MAC. John Groce is known for having some great defensive teams and this team is set up to have that.
The loss of Christian-Jackson is huge and one that will take some time to replace, so the Buckeyes have that going in their favor. However, the rest of the Akron Zips team are veterans and guys like Ali, Trimble and Freeman and their new addition of Walton will help get that production lost back.
This feels like one of those games were the Buckeyes might start a little slow and hold a five or six point lead the half, and then blow the doors off in the second half due to some lack of depth for Akron. Especially without Kyle Young and maybe without Justice Sueing and all of the transfers still getting acclimated, it might take the Buckeyes some time to get all the gears clicking.
I do expect a Buckeye win and fairly easily, but for them to be tested in the first half. Which isn’t a bad thing early in the season.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 86.2%
Time: 6:00 p.m. ET