If you look atop the college basketball recruiting rankings on any given year, you won’t be surprised to find the usual suspects. Duke, Kentucky, UNC, Kansas and the rest of the sport’s blue bloods dominate year in and year out. As things tend to go in the NCAA, you are either a football school or a basketball school, and it is incredibly tough to see sustained success in one — let alone both.
Ohio State would obviously fall into the football school category, finding themselves in the top five nationally in recruiting on the gridiron nearly every year. The Buckeyes play their way into the College Football Playoff discussion each season, and are nothing short of an NFL factory as they pump out some of the best professional players to the league with incredible regularity. The basketball team, on the other hand, has not been as fortunate.
If you’re looking for the men’s hoops team in the recruiting rankings, you’ll likely have to check somewhere in the mid-20s. The Buckeyes have not made a Final Four appearance since 2012, and haven't even made the Sweet 16 since 2013. The NBA success hasn’t quite been there either, with the last first-round pick to come out of Columbus being D’Angelo Russell in 2015. However, since Chris Holtmann took over the program in 2017, Ohio State has been on a clear upward trajectory.
This season, Ohio State has come seemingly out of nowhere to take the college basketball world by storm, currently ranked as the No. 4 team in the AP Top 25. Racking up the most Quad 1 wins in the country with eight, the Buckeyes already have five wins over AP Top 15 teams, and are riding their best winning streak of the season having won their last six straight and nine of their last 10. Getting recognized for their impressive performance thus far, Ohio State currently projects as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
With how things have turned around in Columbus, Holtmann must've been able to haul in some really star-studded recruiting classes in the past few years right? Well, not exactly.
Since his arrival in 2017, Ohio State’s recruiting classes have ranked as follows: 24th, 27th, 14th, and most recently 44th in the 2020 cycle. In fact, the majority of the highest-rated talents in each of these classes are no longer on the roster. Kaleb Wesson, the highest-rated player in 2017, is off pursuing his NBA career in the G-League. Luther Muhammad and Jaedon LeDee, the top two players in the Buckeyes’ 2018 class, have both transferred. D.J. Carton, the highest-rated player in the 2019 group, is now playing at Marquette. So where is all of this year’s production actually coming from?
Taking a look at Ohio State’s current roster, there are actually only three former four-star prospects among the group: E.J. Liddell, Meechie Johnson and Kyle Young. Liddell was the most highly-touted of the bunch coming out of high school, ranking as the No. 44 overall prospect in the 2019 class and twice winning the Illinois Mr. Basketball award. Young, who followed Holtmann over from Butler, was the No. 80 player in the 2017 class, and was Ohio’s No. 2 prospect in the cycle. Johnson reclassified from the 2021 class and enrolled early at Ohio State, forgoing his senior season of high school basketball to play in Columbus.
Outside of that trio, the rest of this current crop of Buckeyes were three-star prospects coming out of high school. So, how has Ohio State been able to overcome a mass exodus of some of their former top recruits and become one of the nation’s top college basketball teams without a roster stacked with blue-chip talent?
Well, for starters, Holtmann has done a tremendous job at navigating the transfer portal and acquiring some guys that had already proven better than their recruiting rankings at the next level. Justice Sueing, a three-star forward in the 2017 class, was Cal’s leading scorer as a sophomore before transferring to Ohio State. Seth Towns, a three-star forward in the 2016 class, was the Ivy League Player of the Year at Harvard his sophomore year before transferring to Ohio State. CJ Walker, a three-star guard in 2016, was a 34-game starter at Florida State before making the move to Columbus. All three of these guys have played big roles in the Buckeyes’ success this season.
On top of working the transfer market, Holtmann has been able to get the most out of some of the guys he recruited that weren’t the most sought-after prospects. Duane Washington Jr., who came to Ohio State as the No. 167 player and a three-star in the 2018 class, has been an integral part of the Buckeyes each of the last two seasons, sitting just behind Liddell as the team’s second-leading scorer this season with 14.6 points per game. Justin Ahrens, the No. 249 prospect in the same class, has developed into one of the nation’s top three-point shooters, hitting at a .469 clip from deep this year. Even freshman Zed Key, the No. 151 player in 2020, has quickly come on as a talented player at both ends off the bench.
Ohio State’s roster may not look as talented on paper as some of the other top teams in the Big Ten like Michigan and Illinois, but Holtmann has been able to get the most out of the players at his disposal. The Buckeyes have been a really fun team to watch this season, developing into one of the conference’s top offenses with their 76.5 points per game through 15 B1G contests. What they lack in a true star at the offensive end, they make up for by stretching the floor and having a number of scoring options that can beat you both under the rim and from beyond the arc. Even as a smaller team, Ohio State is also one of the most physical groups in the country, with little fear of getting down and dirty at either end.
Stars certainly matter in football, but this year’s Buckeye hoops squad has proven that they matter much less on the hardwood. Ohio State may not be on the tier of the Gonzaga's and the Baylor’s of the world — nobody in college basketball is. However, this team is playing its best ball of the season down the stretch, and if they can stick to their game plan and everyone continues to fill their roles, the Buckeyes can certainly make a run in the NCAA Tournament.