For the first time since March 20, the Ohio State men’s basketball team will take the court for a live, competitive-ish basketball contest. They take on the Division-II Chaminade Silverswords tonight at 7:00 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center, and the game is open to fans — although it will likely be a sparse crowd. If you want to watch on TV, you’ll have to purchase a BTN+ subscription.
Chaminade went 9-18 overall last season and 7-13 in the Pacific West Conference. The Buckeyes are facing the Silverswords in Columbus as part of their participation in the Maui Invitational later this month, as Chaminade will also travel to Cincinnati and Louisville for exhibitions — two other teams who are participating in the invitational. With all due respect to Chaminade, they should not pose a challenge to Ohio State, and this piece will focus solely on the Buckeyes.
As has been heavily advertised throughout the offseason, this Ohio State roster is almost unrecognizable compared to the one that fell to Villanova in the second round of the NCAA Tournament back in March. The Buckeyes return just four players from last year’s team, but only two of them — Zed Key and Gene Brown — played more than two games.
With so many new faces in the mix, we’ve been making our best guesses for months on who will start, who will fill various roles, and if this year’s iteration of the men’s basketball Buckeyes can go farther than last season’s. Tuesday night’s exhibition will give us our first sneak peak at the team in competition, and maybe start answering a few of these questions.
There are tons of things we’ll be keeping our eye on, but here’s seven things to watch for during tonight’s action against Chaminade.
How aggressive will Justice Sueing be?
The long-running narrative of “Is Justice Sueing finally healthy?” is dead. It was asked over and over and over and over for the past three months, and each time Chris Holtmann has told us that yes, Sueing is good to go. Each time we’ve had the chance to ask Justice himself, he has also said that he feels great and is ready to play. Will there be some rust after having basically 18 months off? Probably. But the “will he play” plotline is dead. He’s playing.
The question we should focus on is how aggressive Sueing will be after such a long layoff. Two seasons ago when he was healthy, Sueing logged 28.3 minutes per game for Ohio State, scoring 10.7 PPG on 49.1% shooting. He also shot 36.1% from three-point land, but only attempted two per game. He averaged 7.2 shot attempts overall, which was a far reach from the 11 shots per game he took at Cal from 2017-2019.
Sueing will be looked to as one of the team’s main weapons on offense, if not the main weapon on offense. There will be some rust, but if the Buckeyes want to find success in their early-season stretch of tough games, Sueing will need to take 10-11 shots per game, like he did early in his career out west.
Will he be ready to do that after being inactive for so long?
Is Brice Sensabaugh really “him” ?
Last season, Malaki Branham was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, one of the best overall shooters in the Big Ten, and wound up as a first round pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. He was a high four-star recruit, one of the best Ohio recruits over the past decade, and played at the same high school as LeBron James.
And somehow, Brice Sensabaugh has generated even more preseason hype leading into his freshman season than Branham did one year ago.
Now why is that?
Maybe it’s the insane dunks he threw down recently at Buckeyes on the Blacktop. Maybe it’s the 50-point game he put together at the Kingdom Summer League. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s a 6-foot-6, 235-pound power forward who is expected to be one of the better three-point shooters in the conference. Maybe it’s how easily his game reminds people of another recent NBA draftee, E.J. Liddell. It’s probably all of that, combined.
In fact, Branham was actually a higher rated recruit than Sensabaugh. Perhaps Branham’s success is making people raise their expectations for Brice, too. But for the Buckeyes to be successful this season, Sensabaugh will need to develop into a reliable, three-level scorer and at least a tolerable defender.
He may not reach the same level Branham did last season with multiple 30-point games, but there’s no question the “Baby Sensa” hype is very real from the fanbase.
Will Tanner Holden expand his range?
At 20.1 PPG last season, Tanner Holden was actually No. 18 in the nation last season when hr was at Wright State. His 37-point game in the NCAA Tournament’s First Four was highly publicized, but he actually had a 38-point game earlier last season, too.
However, there’s real reason to believe the adjustment from the Horizon League to the Big Ten will not be perfectly smooth. The jump in talent and size is obvious, especially in a conference dominated by big men. He simply will not get the same looks that he did at Wright State last season at Ohio State.
On top of that, Holden is not a three-point shooter — not even a little bit. He averaged 1.1 3PT attempts per game last season, despite taking 12.5 shots per game. He hit 34% of those, but that’s such a small sample size.
Holden attempted 280 free throws last season, which was the second-most in the nation (he hit 79% of them). He’s a great slasher and uses his 6-foot-6 frame to get to the basket — and the charity stripe — often, but his transition to the Big Ten will be a lot smoother if he can also expand his range a bit and knock down some jumpers. Chris Holtmann has harped on this quite a bit during the preseason.
How many positions will Isaac Likekele play?
Perhaps the most fascinating addition to this team is 6-foot-5, 220-pound guard/forward Isaac Likekele, formerly of Oklahoma State. It’s still to be seen if he starts the Buckeyes’ first game against Robert Morris, but even if not, “Ice” is going to see a lot of minutes. He’s a versatile player and a switchable piece on defense, which makes him someone Holtmann will want on the floor as much as possible.
Likekele racked up over 600 rebounds and 400 assists at the orange OSU, while also scoring over 1,000 points. He can run point, play off the ball at the second guard spot, occupy either forward position, and even play center in a small-ball lineup.
There may be some games he is the primary ballhandler for Ohio State and racks up double-digit assists. There may also be a game or two where he backs down the opposing team’s big and winds up with double-digit rebounds. He will do every job that needs to be done on the floor. It’ll be interesting to see how he is used Tuesday night.
How much will we see from Kalen Etzler?
Etzler redshirted last season, put on some additional muscle, and has been somewhat of an afterthought heading into his second season with the team. Now that the redshirt season is over, Etzler is expected to be part of Ohio State’s regular rotation and could become a crucial contributor if he can defend.
At 6-foot-8 and close to 200 pounds, Etzler isn’t nearly as thin anymore as the picture above depicts. His teammates have spoken highly of his offseason work ethic, noting during media day last month that he’s added muscle and has been one of the better shooters at practice thus far.
With four freshmen in the rotation and only one player on the team that’s already proven themselves as a knock-down shooter at the collegiate level (Sean McNeil), there will be an opportunity for Etzler to force Holtmann’s hand and give him consistent minutes. I’m excited to see how he plays Tuesday evening.
Will Ohio State play fast?
Out of 358 D-I teams, Ohio State was No. 289 in adjusted tempo (possessions per 40 minutes) last season. The Buckeyes played slow, and to be frank, they’ve played slow every season since Chris Holtmann became the head coach. Not that it’s a bad thing, because Ohio State’s offense has also been one of the most efficient in the country since he got to Columbus, but it has not been the swiftest. The Buckeyes have been outside of the top-200 in adjusted tempo every season since 2017.
Ohio State apparently wants to play faster this season. Holtmann has mentioned wanting to “push it” with Bruce Thornton at point guard, even if that means an extra turnover here or there. He told us at media day last month that he doesn’t want to see Ohio State passing the ball “just to pass” — if someone has an open look five seconds into the possession, take the shot. Getting an open shot doesn’t necessarily mean you have to work the clock down to single digits, and moving faster gives yourself more shot attempts, too.
However, we’ve heard this before, and the Buckeyes still tend to hover in the mid-200’s in tempo every single year. Keep an eye on their pace tonight, it could be a sneak peak at how they want to run the offense moving forward.
Who becomes the “we need a bucket” guy?
Last season, Liddell was Batman, and Branham was Robin, except on the nights Branham was Batman and Liddell was also Batman.
Two seasons ago, Duane Washington Jr. was Batman and Liddell was Robin.
The season prior, Kaleb Wesson was the guy, and both Washington and Liddell were also around. During Holtmann’s first season, Keita Bates-Diop was the go-to guy.
This season, Ohio State really might not have a go-to “guy”. When the shot clock hits five seconds and absolutely nothing is cooking on offense, who will the Buckeyes pass the ball to and say “go make something happen” ? The last few seasons, that question was easy to answer: Liddell, Branham, Wesson, Bates-Diop, etc.
This season it could be Sueing, the elder statesman of the team and a guy who has averaged 14 points per game during a season once already. It could be Sensabaugh, the mismatch nightmare whose ceiling seems to go up each day we get closer to the season. It could be Roddy Gayle or Bruce Thornton, two guys who are better “attack the basket” guys than they are jump shooters. Maybe it’s Sean McNeil, a fifth-year senior who is a career 37% three-point shooter and will join the 1,000-point club before the calendar flips to 2023?
My guess is Sueing, but keep an eye on who gets the ball Tuesday night when the offense stalls out and Ohio State needs to cook something up with only a few seconds left on the shot clock.