In the quarterfinals of the 2022 Maui Invitational tournament, the Ohio State men’s basketball team just flat-out lost to a better team. The No. 17 San Diego State Aztecs handed the Buckeyes their first loss of the season 88-77 on Monday night, but — call me a homer — I think that there were actually quite a few positives to take away from the game.
First and foremost, Sean McNeil is a scorer. The former West Virginia Mountaineer had 19 points through three games as a Buckeye, and dude went out and put on a show in the second half for OSU, nearly single-handedly keeping his team in the contest. McNeil ended the game with 22 points, just four off of his career-high.
It was also probably really good for the young Buckeyes to play a team early in the non-conference schedule that had the ability to push them around and show them what level of physicality will be needed to play college basketball.
Despite the fact that the Aztecs built a 14-point lead with 8:01 left to play, the Buckeyes continued to fight, eventually cutting the SDSU lead to just seven with 3:57 remaining. While Chris Holtmann’s team was never able to get any closer than that, the heart and perseverance that the team displayed have to build a little bit of confidence moving forward for the Buckeyes.
San Diego State is one of the best teams in the country and the experience of grinding it out in a respectable early-season game should pay dividends throughout the rest of the campaign.
In addition to McNeil’s game-high 22, true freshmen Brice Sensabaugh and Bruce Thornton contributed 17 and 13 respectively, and the latter freshman fouled out with just under two minutes remaining in regulation.
In his return home to Hawaii, Justice Sueing struggled a bit at times but ended up with 6 points and 6 rebounds.
Zed Key has to avoid foul trouble for this team to compete
The Ohio State veteran big man picked up his second personal foul just 5:21 into the game and ended up playing only three more minutes in the first period. With Key out, the Buckeyes first went with an all-guard/small-forward lineup with true freshman center Felix Okpara mixed in.
That is when the wheels started to fall off a bit for the Buckeyes. Not only does Key present a legitimate offensive threat inside, but just his presence on the court also allows the rest of the offense to have extra space to operate. Without a true inside scorer, San Diego State’s defense was able to gum up just about everything that OSU tried to do in the first half.
While it wasn’t exactly night and day, with Key back in the game in the first five minutes after halftime, the OSU offense found a bit of a rhythm with McNeil capitalizing on the increased room to operate. Key picked up his third foul (coincidentally enough) 5:21 into the second half. He did stay in the game this time but came out after a few more minutes.
I think that the Buckeyes have a number of veterans that can provide leadership — especially as the season goes on — but Zed Key is the guy who provides both the on-floor stability for the squad to be able to run its best offense and also the experience to keep his guys under control and focused on the task at hand.
Key ended the game with just 7 points and 3 rebounds in 21 minutes of action, but he was the leading Buckeye in terms of +/- at +5. The only other OSU player to have a + number was Sean McNeil; speaking of which...
Buckeye Nation, meet Sean McNeil
West Virginia transfer Sean McNeil did not score in 29 minutes of action against Eastern Illinois last Wednesday. Coming into Maui, he had 19 points on the season. He had 22 against San Diego State, one of the best, toughest defenses in the country.
At one point early in the second half, McNeil scored 11-straight points for Ohio State, keeping the Buckeyes in a game that could have gotten out of hand quickly coming out of the intermission.
Not only was McNeil showing his ability to connect on spot-up jumpers from distance, but what impressed me most about McNeil was his ability to come off of screens and create his own shots.
While so much of the conversation about this year’s squad has been rightly focused on the highly-rated recruiting class, Ohio State is going to need contributions from transfers McNeil, Ice Likekele, and Tanner Holden. So seeing what McNeil is capable of doing — turning into an absolute microwave — is definitely a positive.
It’s going to take a while for this team to gel
If you have watched the Buckeyes in their first four games this season, you know that there are a lot of new faces playing big-time minutes for Holtmann’s squad. Against San Diego State, the only returning contributor from the 2021-22 season to play was Key. Of course, Justice Sueing was injured for nearly the entire season, but the rest of the rotation for OSU currently is made up of true freshmen and transfer players.
During their first three games of the season, the Buckeyes beat up on Robert Morris (this is actually a school, not just one dude who tried to take on the entire OSU team), Charleston Southern, and Eastern Illinois. So, Monday night’s game against the No. 17 Aztecs was really the first time that this new configuration of Buckeyes has played against anyone of substance.
There were certainly things to be excited about from the game — obviously, McNeil, Bryce Sensabaugh, Bruce Thornton — but the lack of cohesion was pretty obvious in the game. The offense felt more than a little disjointed, which is probably just as much a function of Ohio State’s lack of time together as it is San Diego State having the No. 7 rated defense in the country according to Ken Pomeroy.
In the first half, the Buckeyes were 9-for-30 from the floor (including 1-for-11 from distance) and with Key out, there just wasn’t much flow on the offensive end of the floor.
In the second half, thanks to McNeil’s hot hand and some impressive defensive possessions, the Buckeyes cut what was a 15-point hole to just four at the 13:28 mark in regulation. Then, thanks to back-to-back triples and a turned-over in-bounds play, San Diego State had pushed the lead back up to 59-47 just 51 seconds later.
It’s moments like that where a more experienced group might have been able to slow down the action and keep the deficit to seven instead of 12.