Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.
In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.
This week’s topic: Which Ohio State men’s basketball player has surprised you the most?
Josh’s Take: Meechie Johnson
So far this season, the Ohio State men’s basketball team has shown plenty of flaws. Too many guys getting injured — why are they not doing enough plyometrics!? Too many losses to in-state opponents. Too many turnovers. The team also lacks a true secondary scorer, and in my opinion, depth at the center/big position. But I have good news, Gene.
This team is also fun as hell to watch. They compete like crazy, they have an All-American candidate in E.J. Liddell, can confidently go eight or nine-deep into a rotation, and last, but not least, it’s only December. Every team has things they need to work on. Chris Holtmann has a solid roster at his disposal, and I think they will only get better as the season progresses. Liddell’s performance has not surprised me at all, but I think you and I have both been impressed by guys we didn’t have a ton of confidence in before the season.
My favorite surprise, if there is such a thing, has been Meechie Johnson (Jr). I love this kid, and I can’t fully explain why. He is second on the team in turnovers, averages fewer than two assists per game as a 6-foot-2 guard, shoots 36 percent from the field, and scores seven points per game. But he’s got moxie! And for a young player, he’s fearless. After losing experienced guards in Duane Washington and C.J. Walker, Meechie’s mentality is what this team needed until Jamari Wheeler, Cedric Russell, and Malaki Branham were all able to get acclimated to the program.
Coming into the 2021-22 season, Johnson had played 17 more games for OSU than those other guards I mentioned, which is crazy considering the fact that this could have been his first year with the team. He re-classified during 2020 and joined the Buckeyes for their stretch run last season. He played sparingly, but the experience was valuable. He has shown increased confidence (perhaps of the irrational variety) this season and looks to be a big part of the future success of this program.
With Wheeler, Russell, and Branham coming in, I thought there was a chance that Johnson would be buried on the depth chart — at least for another year. Wheeler and Russell had the experience, Branham had the pedigree. Meechie was in-demand as a recruit too, but prior to enrolling early in Columbus, he really hadn’t played since his sophomore year of high school! It would not have been an indictment on his talent if he was the third or fourth guy off the bench this season. Instead, he is an integral part of the rotation.
His official coming out party was the game-winner against Seton Hall, but Johnson also played well in the two games prior. He scored in double figures in back-to-back games against Bowling Green and Xavier, then hit the big one to take down the Pirates in Fort Myers. He hasn’t scored in double figures since the Xavier game, and he only produced a total of two points against Florida and Duke, but that doesn’t matter to me. I can’t quit Meechie.
He never seems to be afraid of the moment, and I think that will be important down the road. Duane Washington was that guy last year, and while E.J. is more than willing to take the big shots, he often has all eyes on him. Liddell will need reinforcements on the perimeter, and Johnson is one of those guys. His bravado was on further display this past weekend against Wisconsin, when he sparked the Buckeyes with a made three-steal-hockey assist sequence. The team fed off that energy and ended up pulling away from the Badgers for another victory over a ranked opponent.
Look, I know what I’m setting myself up for. Johnson turns the ball over too often. His shot selection is questionable at times, and same goes for his defensive acumen. He is going to frustrate me at some point (or consistently). But he has the “it” factor. The Big Ten is one of, if not the most difficult conferences in college basketball. Ohio State needs “dudes” if they want to compete with the best and possibly win it all (B1G, that is). Johnson is one of those dudes. He is capable of going on a 20-point heater or being held scoreless in three straight. That is the roller coaster named Meechie. Just don’t be surprised if that scoreless streak does come, only to be followed by a 30-foot buzzer beater in the next game out.
Gene’s Take: Jamari Wheeler
I did not have high expectations for Ohio State hoops coming into this season. As Josh alluded to, the only real proven asset for the Buckeyes to start the year was E.J. Liddell. After averaging 16.2 points per game in 2020-21, the former two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball proved that he is one of the team’s best players. However, outside of him, there were a ton of question marks as the 2021-22 campaign got underway.
For starters, Chris Holtmann was tasked with replacing Duane Washington Jr., who led the team a year ago with 16.4 points per game. On top of that, the team lost its top assist guy and floor general C.J. Walker to graduation, as well as significant long-term injuries to Justice Sueing and Seth Towns to start the year. It seemed as though Liddell was going to have to do all of the work this season in order to Ohio State to be even just as average team, and there was no clear secondary scoring options behind him. However, as we have come to find out, that has not been the case.
Liddell has been phenomenal this season, and in my opinion should be considered for National Player of the Year if he can continue playing at such a high level, but a handful of guys around him have stepped up mightily. Zed Key has really come on in year two as the team’s second-leading scorer with 10.4 points per game, while Kyle Young has continued to do what Kyle Young does in all areas in addition to his 10 points per game. Justin Ahrens is filling it up at a career-high 43.1% from three-point range, while young guns in Meechie Johnson and Malaki Branham have been excellent at the guard spots.
Transfers have also played a key role in this season, with Jamari Wheeler joining the roster from Penn State and Cedric Russell coming over from Louisiana. Russell is a really fun player and a guy that seems to be growing confidence with each additional game — highlighted by a 12-point outing against Duke — which has resulted in more and more minutes as the season goes on. He has a chance to be a real weapon for this team down the stretch if he can continue that trend, but the guy I really want to talk about is Wheeler.
Wheeler was never a big scorer for the Nittany Lions, and he clearly came to Ohio State to fill the void left by Walker’s exit. He still isn't exactly lighting up the scoreboard, averaging a little over six points per game, but he has been incredibly efficient as a scorer, shooting just under 47% from the field and 37% from deep with a career-best 87.5% from the free throw line. While he has probably been better than advertised as a shooter, Wheeler’s value extends far beyond what he provides to the Buckeyes by putting the ball in the hoop.
It is no secret that Ohio State turns the ball over a ton. However, you may be surprised to learn that they are in fact only middle of the road in the Big Ten when it comes to giving the ball away, with their 12.5 turnovers per game ranking No. 8 in the conference and their -1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio coming in at No. 7. The Buckeyes have a bunch of careless mistakes through the course of games, and some of this stems from a largely young core group of players being on the floor at the same time. This is where Wheeler has provided a ton of stability.
The fifth-year guard is averaging 4.4 assists per game — the fifth-highest mark of any player in the Big Ten — but almost more impressively is only averaging 1.4 turnovers per game. To put this in perspective, that is the least amount of turnovers among those B1G players that rank top-five in assists. His 3.14 assist-to-turnover ratio is one of the best marks in the conference, and ranks 28th in the country across all of college hoops. Wheeler has been a brilliant distributor of the basketball, and he has nearly single-handedly saved Ohio State from being bottom of the barrel in turnovers and make them league average.
There is still a ton of basketball to be played, but Wheeler has really impressed me so far this season. His ability to run the offense has taken some of the weight of the shoulders of Liddell, who can now focus more on just playing his game, and he has provided a calming, veteran presence to an otherwise young group of players. Wheeler has not yet scored in double-figures this year, but Ohio State really doesn’t need him to. As long as he can keep dishing the rock — in addition to being an above-average defender at the other end with his team-high 1.5 steals per game — Wheeler is going to be an integral part of the Buckeyes’ success the rest of the way.