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What is Ohio State getting in Butler/Indiana transfer Joey Brunk?

It wasn’t a sexy or splashy addition, but Brunk is a safe, smart pickup by Chris Holtmann and his staff.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Holtmann’s Ohio State teams haven’t always been the cleanest offensively, but until this season you could always count on them to play sound, fundamental defense. The most recent version of the Ohio State men’s basketball team turned out to be the exact opposite, finishing fourth in adjusted offense (according to KenPom) and 82nd in adjusted defense. Yuck.

A big reason for the Buckeyes’ defensive struggles was the fact that they lacked any type of presence in the paint. Playing in a conference dominated by big men, Ohio State simply did not have the size or brute strength to contest the Kofi Cockburns and Hunter Dickinsons of the world. We all adore Kyle Young, but at 6-foot-8 and 225 pounds, he shouldn’t be expected to defend those types of players. But — as we’ve all come to expect from Young — he did his damn best.

The Buckeyes’ difficulty defending down low impacted them in more than one way on that end of the floor. In their games versus Michigan and Iowa, Ohio State had no choice but to commit two or three defenders to Dickinson and Luka Garza, therefore opening up the outside for guys like Eli Brooks, Chaundee Brown, Jordan Bohannon, and Joe Wieskamp. To compensate for their lack of size, Chris Holtmann had no choice but to roll the dice on the perimeter and hope those shooters missed some open looks. Well, they didn’t.

Naturally, adding a true post player became priority number one the minute the buzzer sounded in Ohio State’s NCAA Tournament loss to Oral Roberts. Whether it was a high school recruit or a transfer, Ohio State had to add some size to the team and patch that hole on the roster.

Ohio State finds themselves in the final seven schools for the No. 1 overall player in the class of 2021, Chet Holmgren. However, all signs point to the lanky Minnesotan heading to Gonzaga when he makes his announcement this afternoon on ESPN.

The Buckeyes were also rumored to be one of the leading candidates to land the services of five-star center Efton Reid, who is the No. 23 player in the class of 2021 and the third-ranked center. At 6-foot-11 and 235 pounds, he’s exactly the type of player Ohio State would have loved to add. Reid was supposed to announce his college choice last week, but after a full day of waiting, his mother tweeted on Thursday night that his announcement would be postponed indefinitely. In the meantime, big men were entering — and leaving — the transfer portal, and the Buckeyes still hadn’t added anyone.

Chris Holtmann and the Ohio State coaching staff ultimately decided to do the smart thing and secure a commitment from one of the bigs in the portal, rather than rolling the dice and hoping one of Holmgren or Reid chose Ohio State. By the time both of the high school centers committed, all of the talented centers in the transfer portal may have been gone. There’s no question Holmgren or Reid would’ve been better players than most in the portal, but OSU couldn’t afford to wind up with nothing.

In a very oddly-timed and somewhat out of left field announcement Saturday evening, Indiana center Joey Brunk — who played for Holtmann at Butler in 2016 — announced that he would be transferring to Ohio State to utilize his final year of eligibility. As you already know, the NCAA has granted all athletes one additional year due to the abnormalities that COVID brought this past season. Brunk, who will turn 24 by the time the season begins, played three years at Butler and two seasons at Indiana, one of which he missed after having back surgery. He is allegedly fully healthy and ready to rock and roll for one final season.

Adding Brunk wasn’t a flashy pickup, and most people outside of Ohio State circles may not have even noticed the announcement. So if you’re not familiar with Brunk, we’ll break down a few things he brings to an Ohio State basketball program trying to rebound from a historic NCAA Tournament loss and searching for their first Sweet Sixteen in nearly a decade:

255 pounds of Grade-A beef

As noted above, Young, Zed Key, and E.J. Liddell did their darn best defending the paint, but with all three standing at or below 6-foot-8, there was only so much they could do without help from a teammate (or just fouling). Additionally, if any one of them missed a game (both Young and Liddell missed at least one game last season due to injury) Ohio State had even fewer options to throw at opposing big men. They didn’t have a traditional big, and the cabinet wasn’t even stocked with “somewhat” big men.

All around, just a tough situation when Kofi Cockburn is breathing down your neck.

Joey Brunk stands 6-foot-11 and 255 pounds, which will immediately make him both the tallest and heaviest/beefiest player on the team. No, he will not start for the Buckeyes, but he’ll be one of the first few men off the bench early in games when Young or Key need a breather. Having started 31 games for Indiana two seasons ago, he won’t need any time to adjust to the physicality of the Big Ten.

While Brunk is a career 56.1% shooter, he’s only had one season where he averaged more than five shots per game. He’s also not a big shot-blocker, averaging just 0.3 blocked shots per game during his four healthy seasons. Sure, he might drop 10 points or rebounds here and there (his career averages are 5.6 PTS and 3.5 REB), but the biggest asset he brings to the table is simply his size and presence down low. Not only will he stabilize that specific area of the floor, it’ll also allow other defenders to pay closer attention to the perimeter rather than constantly cheating the paint, knowing they may need to help on a double or triple-team at a moment’s notice.

Someone who’s easy to root for

One of the things I’ve personally loved about Chris Holtmann’s teams ever since he came to Columbus is his knack for bringing in kids that are super likeable and easy to root for. From Kyle Young to Eugene Brown to CJ Walker, nearly every player that’s come to Ohio State since 2017 has had either a great story, an infectious personality, or both. Brunk is no different.

Originally recruited by Holtmann to play at Butler, Brunk is now reconnecting with the same coach whose faith in him kept him committed to the game of basketball while he simultaneously dealt with a serious issue at home — his father’s cancer diagnosis. Brunk’s father passed away in April of 2017 from brain caner, right after his freshman season had concluded. CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander wrote a great piece a few years back that touched on Holtmann’s relationship with Brunk and his family while he was recruiting the former four-star center:

“Holtmann vowed to Joe Brunk (Sr.) that he’d coach Joey for his entire college career. Brunk’s dad didn’t want Joey to sign a National Letter of Intent, which most recruits do but stalls their option to transfer out even if their coach leaves. Brunk signed. His father died this past April. Less than two months later, Holtmann was in Columbus.

“My god, what a brutal conversation that was,” Holtmann said. “We were both crying. I said, ‘Joey, I’ve got something really hard I want to say to you.’ I had trouble getting it out. And he said, ‘Coach, I don’t want you to think I’m mad at you.’ He started crying, I started crying.”

In the above video, Indiana’s strength and conditioning coach called Brunk one of the hardest workers he’s ever seen come through their program. Between what he’s dealt with off the court, the fact that he’s getting to re-connect with Holtmann, and his crazy work ethic, it looks like Ohio State is adding a high quality player and an even higher quality person in Joey Brunk.

Experience, experience, experience

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Experience is a word that’s going to go stale so quickly for Ohio State fans next season, but for good reason. By adding Brunk, the Buckeyes now have nine seniors on the team. On top of Brunk, these players are all considered seniors:

  • Jimmy Sotos
  • Duane Washington Jr. (if he returns)
  • Justin Ahrens
  • Justice Sueing
  • Kyle Young
  • Seth Towns
  • Jamari Wheeler
  • Harrison Hookfin (walk-on)

Washington, Ahrens, and Sueing would all have an additional year of eligibility on top of this year if they wanted it due to the COVID-eligibility that I noted above. After having a “young” team the last two seasons, Ohio State will officially become the Wisconsin of the Big Ten with nine seniors on their roster.

Does it mean all that much when the ball is actually tipped? Well, yes and no. The Buckeyes struggled mightily in late-game situations towards the end of the season. With last year’s experience in their pocket plus adding Wheeler and Brunk, one would think that problem should start to dissipate.

Most other tangible statistics like field goal percentage, free throws, and so on shouldn’t be impacted by experience. It’s just nice to have, and Brunk’s presence should also help Ohio State’s other post players — Key, Liddell, and Ibrahima Diallo — improve as well.