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Column: Ohio State’s inability to recruit a center has put them in a tough spot

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The Buckeyes are playing at an extremely high level despite having an inadequate post presence. Imagine where they’d be if that wasn’t the case.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Purdue Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Just over a month ago, then-No. 15 Ohio State lost to Purdue despite holding a six-point halftime lead and shooting 40% from beyond the arc. Duane Washington Jr. had a stellar game, scoring 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting, and the duo of Justin Ahrens and E.J. Liddell combined for 23 points and 11 rebounds.

On the surface, the numbers don’t paint the picture of a one-sided game. The Buckeyes nursed a small lead for much of the night, and it ultimately took a Jaden Ivey step-back three-pointer over Justice Sueing at the buzzer to twist the proverbial knife into Ohio State’s chest. Had he missed that extremely difficult shot, that game would have gone to overtime and we may be having a completely different conversation right now.

He didn’t miss, however, and Ohio State fell to 11-4 overall and 5-4 in conference play. The problem for the Buckeyes that night, and for several nights this season, was their inability to defend the paint. Purdue outscored them 36-8 in the paint that night, which looks like a typo, but I promise it is not. Trevion Williams and Sasha Stefanovic combined for 31 points and the entire Purdue lineup took turns attacking Ohio State on the interior, while the Buckeyes countered by launching a season-high 35 three-pointers, knocking down 14 of them.

However, Ohio State’s struggles inside are not a byproduct of a lack of effort. Anyone who has paid attention this season would agree that Kyle Young, Liddell, and Zed Key have done an admirable job pushing and shoving down low, trying to limit opposing bigs who at times have been six or seven inches taller than them.

For reference, here are a few of the post players Ohio State has faced off against this season, with their height and stat line for that game. It is also important to reiterate that Young and Key are 6-foot-8 and Liddell is 6-foot-7, but consistently play bigger than their actual size.

Nate Laszewski, Notre Dame (6-foot-10) — 17 points, 9 rebounds

Trevion Williams, Purdue (6-foot-10) — 16 points, 8 rebounds, 9 assists (on 12/16)

Trevion Williams, Purdue (6-foot-10) — 16 points, 7 rebounds (on 1/19)

Liam Robbins, Minnesota (7-foot-0) — 27 points, 14 rebounds, 5 blocks

Kofi Cockburn, Illinois (7-foot-0) — 15 points, 11 rebounds

John Harrar, Penn State (6-foot-9) — 15 points, 10 rebounds (on 1/27)

John Harrar, Penn State (6-foot-9) — 9 points, 5 rebounds (on 2/18)

Luka Garza, Iowa (6-foot-11) — 16 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists

Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana (6-foot-9) — 23 points, 9 rebounds

Hunter Dickinson, Michigan (7-foot-1) — 22 points, 9 rebounds

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

I began writing this after the Purdue loss, exasperated and confused how Ohio State got themselves into this position. Chris Holtmann inherited Kaleb Wesson in 2017 when he arrived, and hasn’t secured a commitment from any traditional post players aside from Ibrahima Diallo, who at this point may not even see the court for the Buckeyes (I hope he does, but just being realistic).

But then the Buckeyes got hot, winning seven games in a row. They were winning games despite not having a center, not because of it. Cockburn and Garza, for example, had very good games against the Buckeyes, despite Ohio State throwing the house and more at them. Holtmann obviously decided that he wanted to force the Hawkeyes and Illini to score in other ways, and luckily for him, both teams missed their fair share of open jump shots.

That luck ran out on Sunday afternoon against the Wolverines.

The biggest question heading into yesterday’s game against Michigan was how in the world Ohio State would limit 7-foot-1 behemoth Hunter Dickinson, who entered the game averaging 14.6 points and 7.8 rebounds in 25 minutes per contest.

In the first half, Ohio State went with the Kofi/Garza approach, throwing Liddell and Young at him every time he touched the ball. Dickinson alertly moved the ball back outside, and Michigan knocked down 10 of their 13 first-half three-pointers, good for a 76.9% mark. Absurd. Illinois and Iowa missed some of these open shots, but the Wolverines were not.

In the second half, there was a very obvious effort from Ohio State to guard the perimeter, as they held the Wolverines to just 1-10 shooting from distance. However, to do this, they had to stop giving so much attention to Dickinson. With his newfound breathing room, Michigan’s southpaw big man scored 16 points in the second half, hitting Ohio State with a mix of backbreaking dunks, hook shots, and offensive putbacks.

Having no center puts the Buckeyes in a “pick your poison” situation. If they choose to double-team the opposing center, then they’re banking on their opponent missing some of those wide-open threes, like Illinois did. If they choose to roll the dice and just have Young or Liddell handle the post on their own, they run the risk of the opposition scoring at will down low, and more often than not, the Buckeye assigned to him will end up in foul trouble.

Today, both of those fears became reality, as Michigan pressed the right buttons regardless of how Ohio State played it. Double Dickinson, and they’ll make it rain from beyond the arc. Leave Young or Liddell alone with the seven-footer, and they’ll feed it to him all day.

The problem has been brought up to Holtmann, most recently before the Buckeyes’ game against Iowa on Feb. 4. When asked if the size disadvantage was concerning or just overblown, he told the media that he wanted to, “wait and finish this stretch (of tough games) here,” before answering that question.

Ohio State has gone 4-1 since that question was posed, but it’s also become apparent that the Buckeyes won’t get over the hump from “very good” to “elite” until they can solve this problem. The Big Ten has become a league of talented big men, and Ohio State doesn’t have one. If you look ahead at who will be suiting up for the Buckeyes in the classes of 2021 and 2022, you won’t find a center there, either.

The class of 2021 originally included forward Kalen Etzler (No. 143 recruit according to 247), combo guard Malaki Branham (No. 29), and Meechie Johnson (No. 123). Johnson has since enrolled at Ohio State early and has been getting a few minutes per game off the bench for this year’s Buckeye squad. Etzler, the nephew of former Buckeye Doug Etzler, is 6-foot-8, but at 195 pounds will not spend much of his time holding down the paint. Branham is one of the most talented players Holtmann has recruited to Ohio State, but again, not a center.

Ohio State men’s basketball 2021 recruiting class, courtesy of 247 Sports

Holtmann and the Buckeyes have been tied to this year’s No. 1 player, Chet Holmgren, and he included them in his final seven back in June. It now looks like a four-way race between Gonzaga, Minnesota, Michigan, and the Buckeyes, with Gonzaga the heavy favorite. Holmgren would be an immediate impact player for Ohio State, but the growing consensus is that Holmgren will follow his high school teammate Jalen Sugg’s path and head to Spokane.

Ohio State is also in the mix for 6-foot-11, five-star center Efton Reid. Reid, the No. 23 player in the class, has not put out any final “list” to give any idea which way he is leaning. 247Sports lists the Buckeyes alongside Florida State, Virginia, and NC State as the schools with the best odds to land the talented big man. With less than four months until Ohio State’s freshmen usually move to campus in June, these two decisions loom large over the future of the program and the makeup of the 2021-2022 Ohio State Buckeyes.

Ohio State’s 2022 recruiting class is currently No. 1 in the nation, with commitments from four-star shooting guard Roddy Gayle (No. 46) and four-star point guard Bruce Thornton (No. 60). The final piece of that class is three-star Cincinnati-native Bowen Hardman (No. 144), who is also a guard. That’s back-to-back classes without a true post player, and it’s likely that both Young and Liddell will be gone by the time this recruiting class arrives in Columbus.

Ohio State men’s basketball 2022 recruiting class, courtesy of 247 Sports

And then there’s the transfer portal, which seems like the most likely way Ohio State adds a big man between now and the start of next season. It’s impossible to predict which players will choose to move between now and the summer, but Holtmann has shown a knack for pulling in grad transfers in his four seasons.

Andrew Dakich, Jimmy Sotos, Seth Towns, and Justice Sueing have all transferred to Ohio State in the past four seasons, as well as Abel Porter, who ultimately was forced to retire before the season began due to a medical condition. If Ohio State can’t secure a commitment from one of the remaining 2021 recruits, they’ll have no choice but to go the way of the transfer market for reinforcements.

This piece is partially a knee-jerk reaction to watching freshman Hunter Dickinson manhandle the Buckeyes — that I can concede. But the questions regarding Ohio State’s lack of size have mostly gone unanswered due to their recent hot streak. Every time it gets brought up, Ohio State rips off 3-4 wins in a row, and we seem to forget. Fair. But it’s an issue that needs to be addressed, because it will continue to be their Achilles heel from now until they add at least one true center.

It may not bite them again this season, or the problem could resurface in the NCAA Tournament, who knows? But when you look ahead at the talent joining this Ohio State program in the coming years, you have to wonder if the supposed “versatility” that Holtmann touts is sufficient to help shift Ohio State from an above average program to an elite one. If yesterday’s game was the blueprint moving forward, the answer is no.