Coming into the season, everyone knew that the Ohio State men’s basketball team had to start 3-0 because after the first three games of the season, the schedule gets pretty brutal.
Fast forward and the Buckeyes are 3-0 heading into the Maui Invitational and their first matchup against the No. 17 ranked San Diego State Aztecs.
The last time we saw the Buckeyes, they defeated Eastern Illinois 65-43 in what was certainly their worst showing of the season to this point. The Buckeyes only led 26-20 at the half and as a whole, shot 23-for-57 (40.3%) from the field and 8-for-28 (28.6%) from three-point range.
In their first two games of the season, the Buckeyes did not struggle at all, defeating Robert Morris 91-53 and Charleston Southern 82-56. All three of these opponents ranked well north of the 300 mark on KenPom so the Buckeyes were expected to win those games by reasonably large margins.
Now the true schedule begins. Ohio State heads to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational to face San Diego State on Monday, either Cincinnati or Arizona on Tuesday, and possibly Creighton, Arkansas, Texas Tech, or Louisville on Wednesday. Of the eight teams heading to Maui, five are ranked in the most recent Associated Press poll (Arkansas, Creighton, Arizona, San Diego State, Texas Tech) and three of those teams are in the top 15 (Arkansas, Creighton, Arizona). Cincinnati is 3-1 but are coming off a bad loss to Northern Kentucky and Louisville is…Louisville.
The schedule won’t get any easier after Maui, as once the Buckeyes get back they get to play Duke in the ACC-Big Ten challenge on Nov. 30. The Buckeyes have had three games to figure some things out and now it is time to put the best they have on the court.
For the people that have not watched the Aztecs yet this season, they are one of the best defensive teams in the country. That is where they earn their reputation. They are also deep and experienced, and as the season goes on, will earn more respect as a legitimate Elite Eight-caliber team and possibly a contender to win the whole thing.
Ohio State last played in the Maui Invitational in 2003 when they played San Diego State in first round and lost by 22. This iteration of the Buckeyes are trying to not let history repeat itself. This is the Buckeyes’ fourth appearance in the Maui Invitational, and in all three of the other appearances they finished with an identical 2-1 record (1988, 1993 and 2003).
The Buckeyes also will see a familiar face when they meet San Diego State, as their leading scorer is former Buckeye big man Jaedon LeDee. LeDee has had a tough journey so far, struggling in his lone season at Ohio State and both of his seasons at TCU before sitting out the entirety of last season since he had already transferred one time from Ohio State to TCU. However, he seems to have found some comfortability through his first three games at San Diego State.
LeDee is averaging 16 points and 4.7 rebounds per game while staying out of any foul trouble. He’s also shooting 55 percent from the field while playing 24 minutes per game.
Seattle transfer Darrion Trammell is averaging 15 points per game and 2.7 rebounds per game. The Aztecs can get scoring from a lot of different places with seven different players averaging six or more points per game. Their depth can be beneficial in a tournament where they will play three games in three days. The same can be said for Ohio State and their depth, but the Aztecs are more experienced than the Buckeyes.
San Diego State star guard Matt Bradley is off to a slow start this season, averaging just 7 points per game while shooting 24 percent from the field and 13 percent from three-point range (1-for-8). However, he is still lethal on offense and will without a doubt be the key threat Ohio State has circled in their scouting report. The California transfer averaged 16.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game last season for the Aztecs.
For the Buckeyes, it has been freshman Brice Sensabaugh that has stolen the show. Sensabaugh is averaging a team-high 17 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Zed Key is averaging 13.3 points and 12.3 rebounds per game, while Justice Sueing is averaging 12.3 points per game. Former Oklahoma State Cowboy Isaac Likekele is doing a little bit of everything, averaging 5.7 points , 8 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game.
Also, Ohio State center Zed Key has started the season with three straight double-doubles, the first Buckeye to do that since Kieta Bates-Diop in 2017. Evan Turner also did it 2009.
The Aztecs are averaging 12 steals per game as a group, so the ball handlers — Bruce Thornton and Isaac Likekele — will have to be crisp and clean with the basketball so the Aztecs can’t turn their defense into offense, which is one of their main strengths.
This will be a game where the first 10 minutes is incredibly important. If the Buckeyes get off to a slow start or allow the Aztecs to get off to a fast start and go down early, they are a tough team to rally against because of how sound they are on defense and how fundamental they are on offense. A 10-point deficit will feel like a 20-point hole very quickly against these guys.
As ugly as it was against Eastern Illinois, it was good for Ohio State to have a game where they really struggled on offense before they faced the Aztecs. The Buckeyes can learn from that adversity and figure out what to do when they get cold from the field, because San Diego State is going to make every possession difficult Monday night.
This might be going out on a limb here, but I believe the difference will be Ohio State’s defense. The bar has not been set high and they have yet to face any real threats on offense, but the Ohio State defense has been impressive to this point. I think the combination of Zed Key and Felix Okpara can make it tough for LeDee down low, while Bruce Thornton, Isaac Likekele and Justice Sueing can make it hard on Trammell and Bradley.
Sueing is always the key to the Buckeyes offense. Sensabaugh is averaging the most points, but Sueing is the most versatile scorer on the team and we have seen it this season, with Sueing scoring 20 points in the opener against Robert Morris.
Sean McNeil is also a key in this one. McNeil is an elite level shooter but he has yet to show his aggressive nature with the Buckeyes thus far. He is averaging 6.3 points per game and will have to get that into double digits to really maximize his threat from deep.
ESPN BPI: San Diego State 51.2%
Time: 9:00 PM