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Best freshman seasons of the 21st century for Ohio State men’s basketball

Malaki Branham has broken out in a big way, but he still has a lot of work to do if he wants to join this impressive group.

Was D’Lo the best OSU freshman of this century? A case could be made...
Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

After a bit of a slow start to his freshman campaign, Malaki Branham has broken out in a major way for the Ohio State men’s basketball team. In the month of January (three games prior to Thursday night), he has averaged 24 points on 58 percent shooting and 50 percent behind the arc. He has also attempted 20 free throws during that time. While this is absolutely a small sample size, and buoyed by a 35-point performance in which he was unconscious from the field, the New Year was not his introduction to college basketball.

He had played 13 games prior, so this is legitimate growth and development in a short timeframe — not a fluke. 24 PPG is likely not sustainable, but the three-game tear should be taken seriously.

For the season, Branham sits at 10.4 PPG on 46 percent shooting overall, 42 percent behind the arc, and 92 percent at the line. He has proven to be a solid running mate for E.J. Liddell, which, after the departure of Duane Washington, was always going to be crucial to this team’s success.

But as good as Branham has been recently – and he has been damn good – if the season ended today, he would not even crack the top five of the best seasons by an OSU (men’s) freshman basketball player, and I’m only referring to the 21st century! Branham has been good, but the Buckeyes have had more than a handful of great freshman seasons since 2000. Here is a look at the best and most memorable.

Honorable mentions

William Buford, 2008-2009

Like Branham, Buford was named Ohio Mr. Basketball prior to his time at Ohio State. Also similarly to Branham, Buford took a few games to get acclimated to the college game before he really began to produce. Buford scored less than 10 points in six of his first seven games, but would then go on to average 11.3 PPG for the season (second on the team) and win Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Despite winning conference FOTY, Buford’s season narrowly misses the list.

Aaron Craft, 2010-2011

Sentimental pick here. Craft is one of the most well-respected and well-liked Buckeyes of the last 20 years, and he actually provided a lot of value during his freshman season. Every Big Ten opponent’s least-favorite player primarily came off the bench, but played 30 minutes per game. Craft averaged 6.9 PPG, to go with 2.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 2.1 steals. He did a little bit of everything, and had his best year shooting from behind the arc. Craft’s freshman season was a preview of the great career he would go on to have.

No. 5 — Kosta Koufos, 2007-2008

Kosta Koufos was a very good player for one season at Ohio State. He had a vastly underrated freshman year, which is not properly appreciated because he was tasked with filling the shoes of Greg freaking Oden! Talk about a tough act to follow...

This Greek big man and Canton, Ohio product averaged 14.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game for the Buckeyes. The roster and occasional foul trouble limited him to “only” 27 minutes per game, making his per 40 minute averages look even more impressive. Extrapolated out, Koufos’ per 40 stats were 21.3, 9.9, and 2.7, respectively. I would never compare him to Greg Oden in a million years, but from a scoring standpoint, they were similarly productive (Oden: 21.7 PPG on a per-40 basis).

Koufos was a very skilled and surprisingly modern big. While the majority of his production came down low, he also had a solid jumper that allowed him to make 22 three pointers in 37 games for OSU. He did so on 35 percent accuracy. Unfortunately, the Buckeyes were not great during Koufos’ freshman season, and the team failed to make the NCAA tournament, which likely had an impact on his legacy — or lack thereof. The big guy has since enjoyed a sneaky good, decade-long NBA career, proving that he likely would have been a star at Ohio State if he had stuck around longer.

Not bad for “the guy after Oden”. Koufos deserves proper recognition.

No. 4 — Mike Conley, 2006-2007

Both looked a little different back in the day, but Conley was an on-court coach for a special Thad Matta team
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

In my opinion, Conley is the “Point God” of the 21st century for Ohio State. His stats don’t jump off the page like those of No. 2 (no spoilers), but he was the man behind the wheel of a great Final Four team, and he was the true floor general as a freshman. He also played in all 39 games that season and led the Buckeyes in minutes per game with 31.6. Most importantly, he stepped it up in a major way during NCAA tournament play, for which he was named to the 2007 NCAA All-Tournament team.

On the season, Conley averaged 11.3 points and 6.1 assists per game — somewhat pedestrian for a guy who comes in at No. 4 on this list. That being said, he was the perfect teammate. He shared the ball with Greg Oden and a couple of guys who, frankly, loved nothing more than to shoot a basketball. Daequan Cook and Ivan Harris never met a shot they didn’t like, so it’s not as if the point guard could dominate looks. Ron Lewis and Jamar Butler were also starters on the team, so there was plenty of skill to go around. Conley didn’t need to score 20 on a nightly basis. His steady play at the point was more than enough.

Conley went on to establish himself as a Buckeye legend and first round NBA Draft pick during OSU’s run to the ’07 title game. Not including the opening matchup with Central Connecticut – a game in which he was really not needed – Conley averaged 18.4 points and 4.8 assists per game. In the final against Florida, he dropped 20 points to go with six assists and four steals. The Gators were simply the better team. Conley and his teammates ultimately came up short, but the point guard will forever be remembered as being a major player for one of Ohio State’s all-time great teams.

No. 3 – Jared Sullinger, 2010-2011

Big Sully! Now, I know where this is heading. If you are a true OSU hoops fan, you likely know who I’m going with at No. 2. I’m sure it is bound to stir up some controversy. As much as I loved watching Sully play, this is my humble opinion, and I stand by it.

Sullinger was a dominant physical force as a freshman for a team that went 32-2 during the regular season and made a run to the Sweet Sixteen. The Columbus, Ohio native was not only a bully on the block, but also surprisingly agile for his size (6-foot-9, 265 pounds). He averaged 17.2 PPG to go with 10.2 rebounds, giving him the last double-double season in Ohio State men’s basketball history.

The Buckeyes lost on a buzzer beater to Kentucky in the tournament, which is likely why Sullinger is the only player in this top-5 who returned for a sophomore season. 2011-2012 was more of the same for him personally, but the team could not replicate the previous year’s success. That 2010 team was arguably the best chance OSU had of winning a National Championship since the Oden-Conley team.

But here we are, and Sullinger is the real topic. Sully was one of the best big men in modern program history. That is a fact. His soft touch around the rim, combined with great footwork and ability to grab offensive rebounds, made him lethal on the offensive end. He had the stamina to grind it out for 32 minutes per game, which for a man his size was nearly as impressive as his scoring prowess. Sullinger’s freshman season ended with a host of individual honors, including: Big Ten Freshman of the Year, 1st Team All-Big Ten, and 1st Team Consensus All-America.

That is a tough act to beat, but I think two other Buckeyes did exactly that.

No. 2 – D’Angelo Russell, 2014-2015

Bring it on, folks. I am here for it. I believe that D’Angelo Russell had the second-best season by an Ohio State freshman since 2000. You’re probably saying something to the effect of: “His team went 24-11. They finished sixth in the Big Ten. How do you have him ranked ahead of Sully!?” I am going to tell you how. And if that doesn’t get you fired up, how about this? I almost ranked him No. 1! Let me explain...

Russell had a transcendent freshman season; no hyperbole. He was one of the most highly-coveted recruits in the country out of Montverde Academy, and he absolutely lived up to expectations. He averaged 19.3 PPG to go with 5.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists. He put up double digits in all but two games, and scored 25 or more seven times. Russell was (and is) incredibly skilled in multiple facets of the game, and one of the most exciting OSU players in recent history.

Some will point to his team’s success — or lack thereof. You could even point out that he went 3-for-19 in his last game, one which the Buckeyes lost to Arizona in the tournament... erroneous! Ohio State’s second-leading scorer that season was Sam Thompson. Jae’Sean Tate and Keita Bates-Diop were both freshman, and Marc Loving and Amir Williams were getting big-time minutes. The team stunk out loud.

Russell dragged that team to a Sweet Sixteen appearance. Tate and KBD became great Buckeyes, but the 2014 roster would have produced a .500 team if not for Russell. This smooth lefty was a dynamic scorer, and made some of the most absurd passes you will see at the college level. His freshman season was comparable to Evan Turner’s POTY campaign (minus a few rebounds), if that tells you anything. Russell deserves this spot.

No. 1 – Greg Oden, 2006-2007

Oden will always be regarded as an Ohio State legend
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

We can all agree on this one, right? Am I back in your good graces? Greg Oden was an absolute force for the Buckeyes during his freshman year, and will likely go down as one of most talented basketball players to ever come through the program. The big legend led them to a National Championship game appearance and wrecked shop along the way. He almost made it seem easy.

Oden averaged 15.7 PPG on 62 percent from the field. He also grabbed just under 10 boards per game, and averaged more than three blocks per. He was big, he was skilled, and he became a truly dominant defender. For his freshman season, Oden received the following accolades: Big Ten Freshman of the Year, 1st Team All-Big Ten, and 2nd Team Consensus All-American. His last memory as a player for the Buckeyes was a 25 point, 12 rebound, and four block performance against the Gators in that memorable ’07 final. His effort against the front line of Florida is something I will remember fondly.

Despite the fact that his team came up just short, Oden will always be remembered as a superstar. He nearly led the Buckeyes to Ohio State’s first and only National Championship since 1960. He controlled the game on both ends via his ability to score on anybody, and also his tremendous defensive prowess. He may have been credited with three blocks per game, but he affected eight or nine (or more). There was much debate over who was the best player in the country: Oden? Or Kevin Durant? Given what we know how, that is saying something.

Oden suffered too many injuries, and was out of basketball far too soon. Durant has flourished, but when both of them were freshman, they stood out amongst their peers. The Buckeye big man is back with Ohio State, this time as a graduate assistant. We can be optimistic that his presence as a coach will lead to the same success he enjoyed as player, but the bar is just too high. Oden was one of the best players in program history, and definitely had the best freshman season of the 21st century.