Nearly a third of the regular basketball season is now behind us. Hard to believe, isn’t it? The Ohio State Buckeyes, burdened with departures and injuries, got off to a slow start. Ranked 17th in the preseason AP poll, the Bucks struggled in some early games against suspect opponents (Akron?) and then lost games to Xavier and Florida. After dropping out of the rankings, the Buckeyes beat #1 Duke in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and then handled (rather easily, actually) a tough Penn State on the road.
An 85-74 win last night against Towson State, and here we stand, 7-2 and ranked #21 in the nation. Oh, we miss Justice Sueing and hope that he’s back sooner rather than later. But Kyle Young is playing well now, and Coach Chris Holtmann seems to have settled on his starting lineup: Justin Ahrens, E.J. Liddell, Zed Key, Jamari Wheeler, and Malaki Branham. Young, Meechie Johnson, Eugene Brown III, and Cedric Russell fill out a nine-man rotation, with Joey Brunk coming in, especially if one of the “big” men gets into foul trouble or finds size to be a problem on defense. Earlier in the season, the scoring was all up to Liddell, but now it’s more balanced. Last night, for instance, witnessed four Buckeyes scoring in double figures, all of them shooting well.
Coming into this season, I was worried about the guard situation. Ohio State looked solid (if somewhat undersized) in the front court with Liddell, Young, Key, Ahrens, and Sueing all returning. I know that Ahrens and Sueing sometimes seem to be playing guard, but the top three true guards from the 2020-21 season were all gone. Ball handling, assists, defense, and scoring all took a hit with the losses. Duane Washington led the Bucks in scoring last year with a 16.4 average; he also contributed nearly three assists per game. C.J. Walker led the team in assists in ‘20-21 and averaged 9.5 points per game. Musa Jallow was good on defense and could spell the other guards. All are missing from this year’s lineup.
With only Brown and Johnson, both of whom seeing only limited minutes last season, back, OSU needed help right away and turned to the transfer portal as well as bringing in Ohio’s “Mr. Basketball.” So, let’s take a look at the new guys and see how the guard play looks so far.
Jamari Wheeler. It’s clear that Holtmann (and everyone else) was counting on the Penn State transfer to step in and run the team. A stalwart on defense, Wheeler was needed to start the offense and be the “assist man.” Not surprisingly, Wheeler leads the Bucks in assists with 38 and has an impressive 3.2 assist to turnover ratio. Although Wheeler’s shooting percentages are good (47.5% FG, 39.1% 3-PT), he’s conservative in shot-taking and is averaging only six points per game, despite the minutes that he logs (second on the team to Liddell). And he’s getting better in his role. His biggest game was against his former teammates, when he registered nine points, on 4 for 10 shooting, and nine assists to only one turnover.
Maliki Branham. A true freshman, Branham, the reigning Mr. Basketball in Ohio, found himself in the starting lineup for the Bucks’ second game against Niagara and has been there since. Naturally, Branham has displayed some of the typical rookie problems as he makes the transition from high school to big time collegiate basketball. Both his shooting percentages and his assist/turnover ratio could see some improvement, but his scoring – and his confidence – have picked up in the past few games. Branham is currently averaging seven points per game and is right behind Wheeler in minutes played for guards. I have no doubt that he’s going to be a good one.
Meechie Johnson. Johnson graduated from high school a semester early and enrolled at Ohio State for the 2021 winter term. And, in fact, he averaged about six minutes per game for the Bucks in the second half of last season. Johnson started at guard in the season opener this year against Akron, but he was 0/3 in field goal attempts and committed three turnovers with no assists. Branham took over as starter, and Johnson now comes off the bench. His playing time, however, is just about two minute less per game than Branham’s. Johnson is very quick, likes to drive the ball, and likes to shoot; he’s currently averaging 6.6 points. He also, at the moment, has more turnovers than assists – an aspect of his game that needs to get better.
Cedric Russell. Russell, like Wheeler, is a graduate transfer. First team all Sun Belt Conference for the Louisiana-Lafayette Rajin’ Cajuns, Russell averaged 17.2 points per game last year and was expected to provide some much-needed firepower from outside for Ohio State this year. So far, though, Russell’s playing time has been limited, and so has his scoring. Against Duke, though, we got a glimpse of what he can do. Russell was three for four in his field goal attempts, scoring 12 points and pulling down three rebounds. He’s five for 10 from beyond the arc, evidence of his 3-point shooting capability.
Bottom line. The guard play has improved considerably since early in the season. It was inevitable that these four guys, all of them (even Johnson) really new, would take some time to feel comfortable on the team and with what was expected of them. We can also throw in Eugene Brown III, for some added depth. Brown, who’s played in only five of the nine games so far, played ten minutes last night and hit his only shot, a three-pointer. Watching the games, even I can tell that the guards’ switches on defense and their movement and passing on offense have gotten better. The game results bear that out.
The Buckeyes, no doubt, will have trouble with some of the Big Ten’s true giants at center – guys like Michigan’s 7-1 Hunter Dickinson, Illinois’ 7-0 Kofi Cockburn, or Purdue’s 7-4 Zach Edey and 6-10 Trevion Williams – but, otherwise, the front court should be just fine. Liddell is a true star, and Key has made a big leap from his freshman to his sophomore season. Ahrens and Young are solid and can shoot from deep and rebound. It was the backcourt that was very iffy. But, after nine games, it looks as though, it, too, is going to be all right. Wheeler, while he probably won’t be a top scorer, can run the team, and I think that we’ll see the others putting up some points and cutting back on their turnovers. With games against #22 Wisconsin and #10 Kentucky coming up, let’s hope so.