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Liddell and Washington Jr.’s pro decisions dictate the ceiling, floor of Ohio State men’s basketball

Two players returning could be the difference between a national championship and the NIT.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

This has been an extremely interesting off-season for Ohio State basketball. The Buckeyes did something you rarely see in the NCAA Tournament, losing to a 15-seed in the first round. Definitely a tough way to end the season, but with two months to mull it over, we’ve moved on, right? No? Well, give it time. I’m not there either.

Immediately after Baylor won the national championship, the NCAA announced that all athletes would be given an extra year of eligibility due to the abnormalities that COVID-19 brought last season (that was before the one-year transfer rule was announced). This caused a massive influx of players to enter the transfer portal, as college basketball essentially entered free agency. Chris Holtmann and his gang of merry gentlemen were able to reel in two transfers, with both coming from other Big Ten schools. It’s almost unheard of for someone to transfer in-conference, but two guys staying in-conference going to the same program is even wilder.

On top of the B1G-cabinet raiding that Ohio State did this offseason, the Buckeyes also signed two recruits: three-star wing Kalen Etzler and four-star guard Malaki Branham — the reigning Ohio Mr. Basketball. Etzler will need to find his place in the rotation as the season progresses, as his role still isn’t super clear. Branham will see the court a bit more, especially if Duane Washington Jr. chooses to forgo his final two seasons of legibility (including the COVID bonus year) and enter the NBA draft.

That brings us to the topic at hand. The Buckeyes possess two of the most talented players in the B1G in E.J. Liddell and Washington Jr., both of whom are currently listed in the 2021 NBA Draft pool. However, they have until July 7 to withdraw from the draft and return to Ohio State if they choose. Neither player is listed in any mock drafts, and there’s pretty much zero chance both get drafted. Looking at the odds, the most likely scenario is that both come back to school for another year, but playing in the NBA is not the only path for someone wanting to go pro. We’ll just have to wait and see.

One thing is for certain though — the impact these two players have on this year’s version of Ohio State men’s basketball is hard to overstate. Their potential ceiling, if both return, is sky high. Even after a disappointing finish last season, you can’t let that interfere with what we see on paper heading into this season. It will be Chris Holtmann’s best team ever.

But if both leave for the draft — something that seems unlikely — this team may not even be an NCAA Tournament team. Removing Liddell and Washington from the equation is akin to chopping off someone’s legs. Liddell is likely the Buckeyes’ first offensive option, with Washington Jr. being the second (or 1A/1B, truthfully). But who is plan C? Is it Branham, the flashy guard who’s yet to play a minute in college? Is it Justice Sueing, who is consistent and dependable, but hardly a go-to scorer? Is it Seth Towns, the only player on this team who’s ever resembled an alpha-type scorer, but it was three years ago?

The point is this — there isn’t a team in recent memory whose potential ceiling (the best they can accomplish) and their potential floor (the absolute worst they could be) were farther away from each other. Right now, it is impossible to predict what we’ll see from this Ohio State team until we know who’s going to be on the roster. And because of the NBA’s new rule allowing people to enter and withdraw later, it still may be a few weeks until we know for sure.

So, what could we expect in the best and worst scenarios? Well...

Scenario 1: Liddell and Washington Jr. both return

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oral Roberts at Ohio State IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

With both returning, this is a national-championship caliber team. I know those words may sound foolish considering what Ohio State did in their last game, but what did Virginia do the year after they lost to a 16-seed? They won a national championship.

I’m not saying Ohio State is going to win a national championship necessarily, but that one loss shouldn’t taint what the next version of this team can accomplish. With Washington Jr. and Liddell both on board, the Buckeyes will have two of the top five or six players in the B1G on the same team. Throw in Justice Sueing, Jamari Wheeler, and the indispensable Kyle Young, and that’s an elite starting five. They’ll also have a former Ivy League Player of the Year in Seth Towns coming off the bench, who apparently is feeling better and better as he works himself back into pre-knee explosion form.

Ohio State’s ceiling is a national championship if both return. That’s how good they can be, and that’s how talented this roster is with both of them back in Columbus.

Scenario 2: Liddell and Washington Jr. both stay in the draft

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

It would be a rushed judgement to jump all the way to “this team will stink” if neither of their go-to scorers return, but things will certainly be...challenging. Ohio State was not a good defensive team last year, and swapping Liddell and Washington for Branham and Zed Key is not going to magically fix those issues. The Buckeyes either need a brand new defensive philosophy, or for the current cast to dramatically improve on that end of the floor.

But then you also combine the existing defensive issues with an offense that’s suddenly missing nearly 40% of its scoring output from last year? Woof. Who’s going to be “the guy”? Is it Towns? He may never be healthy enough to be a leading scorer. Is it Sueing? He’s a guy who can score at all three levels, but is pretty clearly better used as a second or third option. Is it Branham, who looks to be a star in the making but still hasn’t played a minute in college? The worst teams of the Thad Matta era were those who didn’t have a go-to scorer, and this team minus Liddell and Washington would look a lot like that.

Without those two players, this team certainly isn’t a national championship team and may not even be an NCAA Tournament team. The NIT or CIT could be rock bottom for Ohio State if Washington Jr. and Liddell choose to move on to the professional ranks.

Now what?

Now we just sit back and wait. Here are a few dates and deadlines players have to abide by, set by the NCAA and NBA:

June 21-27: NBA Draft Combine
If Liddell or Washington are invited to the combine, they’ll participate and still have time to withdraw afterward if they choose. Only the top 60-70 players in the draft class will be invited, and it’s unclear if either Buckeye will make the cut.

June 22: NBA Draft Lottery

July 7: NCAA early entrant withdrawal deadline
College players must withdraw by this deadline to retain NCAA eligibility. This does not apply to international players. For example, if Liddell did not withdraw until July 8, he could still enter the draft next year, although he could no longer play college basketball. He would need to play elsewhere for one year.

July 19: NBA early entrant withdrawal deadline
All players, both American and international, must withdraw from the draft by this deadline if they are no longer interested in keeping their name in. We will likely know about Liddell and Washington far before this deadline.