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How does the addition of Cedric Russell impact Ohio State this season and beyond?

The Buckeyes were ready to roll with what they had, but added a last-second reinforcement last week with Russell’s arrival.

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The 2021-2022 Ohio State men’s basketball roster appeared to be more or less locked in last week, with the frontcourt starting spots likely going to Kyle Young, Justice Sueing, and E.J. Liddell — just like last season. The backcourt likely wouldn’t have been settled until much later, with only former Penn State guard Jamari Wheeler appearing to be locked into a starting spot. The final guard spot would’ve gone to either sophomore Meechie Johnson, freshman Malaki Branham, or fifth-year senior Jimmy Sotos.

While each of those players come with their own questions, Chris Holtmann appeared fine utilizing Sotos’ experience and Johnson/Branham’s raw talent at the off-guard spot.

That was, until Mr. Cedric Russell arrived.

The transfer portal cooled off considerably by the time the calendar flipped to July, with most rosters filling out nicely and player movement slowing down quite a bit. That’s part of the reason Russell’s announcement last week came as somewhat as a surprise, given Ohio State’s depth at guard (compared to last season) and the lull in transfers over the past few weeks. Less than 48 hours after news broke that both Russell and Alabama’s Jaden Shackelford were considering a transfer to Ohio State, Russell committed to the Buckeyes. That (obviously) means Shackelford will be going elsewhere.

Russell is a former three-star recruit who chose to stay in-state and play at Louisiana-Lafayette, spurning offers from bigger programs such as Houston, LSU, VCU, and Baylor. Very much a scoring guard rather than a facilitator, Russell led the ‘Ragin Cajuns in scoring last season at 17.2 points per game on 41.9% shooting, including shooting an even 40% from three-point land. That 40% was no fluke either, as he hoisted over seven three-point attempts per game last year, landing him in the top 25 in the nation last season in 3PA.

He also garnered All-Sun Belt honors last season for his efforts, one of two All-SBC players who are transferring to the Big Ten Conference after Coastal Carolina’s DeVante Jones announced he’d be transferring to Michigan back in May. Jones was also first team All-SBC, but was also the Sun Belt player of the year. The two fiery guards will have the chance to lock each other up for one more season at their new Big Ten homes this year.

While the added offense is certainly welcomed following Duane Washington Jr.’s departure, this addition came somewhat out of left field. We’re not in the loop with the coaching staff by any means, but the roster appeared to be set in stone just last week. On a radio program recently, Holtmann said that if they added a player, it would need to be, “The right fit,” and less than a few days later, they added Russell.

While adding the savvy vet to this season’s squad will without a doubt make them an all-around better team, it’ll also impact a few members of the current team, as well as the program’s long term path. Let’s dive in a little bit:

How does the addition of Russell impact....

...Jimmy Sotos?

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

During a recent interview with former Ohio State guard Joey Lane, I asked if he expected Malaki Branham or Meechie Johnson to slide into that starting spot vacated by Washington Jr. His answer was neither of them. Instead, he told myself and Justin Golba that he expected Chris Holtmann to start Jimmy Sotos in November at the off-guard spot. While Joey acknowledged that the lineup would likely be fluid as the season rolls on, he believed that Holtmann would side with experience over potential — at least early on — and start Sotos.

With Russell’s transfer to Ohio State, Sotos may become the odd man out on a suddenly guard-rich team. I’d image Russell starts next to Jamari Wheeler, with Sotos, Branham, and Johnson all coming off the bench. This doesn’t even include Eugene Brown, who is a combo guard/forward, but he will also eat into some of those minutes.

Could Sotos possibly transfer again? He hasn’t gotten a ton of run with the Buckeyes yet after he injured his shoulder last season, but the minutes could be tough to come by this year if he’s coming off the bench.

...Meechie Johnson?

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Similar to Sotos, Johnson will also see a slight downtick in minutes with Russell’s arrival. While playing behind a couple of seniors in Wheeler and Russell will help his development as a player, Johnson’s impact on this year’s team will be dampened a little bit as the likelihood of his starting at any point this season drops.

In the long run, Holtmann’s adding Wheeler and Russell to the team should help Johnson’s progression as a collegiate point guard quite a bit. Still just 18 years old after enrolling early last year, Johnson has four more years of eligibility and will be running the show some day soon in Columbus...just not this season.

...Malaki Branham?

High School Basketball: NOV 08 Pangos All-American Festival Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

You can pretty much copy + paste Johnson’s part here under Branham as well. He has yet to play one minute of college basketball, so a crowded backcourt isn’t going to push him to pursue greener pastures or anything like that. I had a feeling Branham could crack the starting lineup pretty early, but now that Russell is on the team, it seems Branham will start the season on the bench.

Chris Holtmann was willing to go 10 or 11-deep last season, so anyone on the team who proves to be valuable will see the floor a decent amount. Starting or not, I think we’ll see a good amount of Branham this season.

... Ohio State’s ceiling?

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Adding Cedric Russell does nothing but help the Buckeyes’ chances of winning the Big Ten and advancing in the NCAA Tournament. If he doesn’t perform to the levels we expect, then Johnson, Branham, Sotos, and others are all still waiting to contribute, just like they were before Russell arrived. And if he does contribute at the level we expect, then the Buckeyes could potentially brandish an explosive offense that includes a potential All-American/ B1G POY in Liddell, a former all-Sun Belt selection in Russell, the former Ivy League Player of the Year in Seth Towns, plus two other double-digit scorers in Kyle Young and Justice Sueing.

Following Washington Jr.’s departure, most experts were pegging Ohio State a preseason top-25 team, somewhere between 15-25. CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein — one of our favorites here at LGHL — has the Buckeyes No. 17 right now. Gary Parrish of CBS has OSU at No. 15. Both seem reasonable. If the defense improves from last season, and Russell can provide even half of what Washington Jr. provided, the Buckeyes will end the season much better than 15th in the AP Poll.

... 2022’s roster?

This is where things get interesting. With the NCAA giving one additional year of eligibility to all players due to COVID-19, several players who would typically be out of eligibility after this season could actually return. It’s impossible to predict who may come back for a fifth or sixth year right now, but these are the guys who Ohio State will likely lose after the upcoming season, assuming they don’t use that extra year of eligibility:

  • Jimmy Sotos
  • Justin Ahrens
  • Justice Sueing
  • Kyle Young
  • Seth Towns
  • Joey Brunk
  • Jamari Wheeler
  • Cedric Russell

That would leave Ohio State with just these nine players on scholarship for 2022-2023, including all three 2022 commits:

  • Meechie Johnson
  • Eugene Brown
  • Malaki Branham
  • Zed Key
  • Kalen Etzler
  • E.J. Liddell
  • Bruce Thornton
  • Bowen Hardman
  • Roddy Gayle Jr.

My assumption is that a few of the seniors will utilize the extra year and return, but it will not be those who are utilizing their extra year this season, nor will it be players like Towns or Brunk who will turn 24 years old this season. It would make sense if Ahrens or Sueing came back, as neither look like NBA prospects and would have the option to come back if they wanted.

Still, the Buckeyes are going to lose a massive haul of players at the end of the season. If we count those nine plus Sueing and Ahrens returning (which is by no means a guarantee), Ohio State would still have two open scholarships for recruits or transfers. That’s also assuming nobody from the current team transfers out of the program next year.

If you thought this offseason was kooky, just wait until next year!