The Bucks, at 6-2 for the year, remain in the AP Poll at the No. 25 position, with a game against Big Ten foe Rutgers on Thursday. With football season taking a bit of a hiatus until the bowl games begin and the basketball season about to turn the corner into the conference schedule, it seems a good time to take a look at this year’s Buckeyes and gauge their progress so far in the 2022-23 season.
Rebuilding year? More like starting over
As any OSU basketball fan knows, coach Chris Holtmann had his work cut out for him this season, virtually starting from scratch to build a new squad.
Of last year’s top eight scorers, only one — Zed Key — returned this year. Stars E.J. Liddell and Malaki Branham headed off to the NBA. Jamari Wheeler, Kyle Young, Justin Ahrens, and Cedric Russell exhausted their eligibility. And Meechie Johnson, Jr. transferred to the University of South Carolina.
In addition to Key, guard Eugene Brown returned, but suffering a concussion in preseason, hasn’t played in a game yet. Justice Sueing, who missed nearly all of last season with injury, is back to provide some experience and leadership.
Total? Really only three players from last year’s group.
To go along with his No. 8-ranked (composite) 2022 freshman recruiting class, Holtmann used the transfer portal to pick up some veteran help for this year. The portal has more of an impact on college basketball than it does on football, for the simple reasons that the rosters are smaller and a single player can turn a team around. A player who finds the competition for court time too stiff or discovers that his coach’s playing style or personality doesn’t fit, is often quickly gone.
This year, Isaac Likekele, a grad transfer from Oklahoma State, and Sam McNeil, a grad transfer from West Virginia, have proven to be valuable additions to the Buckeyes, as they lead the team in minutes played per game.
Likekele, a 6-foot-5 guard who led the Cowboys in assists and steals, has picked up where he left off in Stillwater. With 25 assists (against only 10 turnovers), he leads the Buckeyes in that category and also averages 4.5 points and 6.3 rebounds (second on team) per contest. His steadiness has been a real asset for this very young OSU team.
McNeil is more of a shooter and averages in double figures – 10.4 points per game. Whereas last year only Liddell and Branham averaged double digit points, this season sees four Bucks, five if we round up Bruce Thornton’s 9.9 ppg. This balance makes the Buckeyes tougher to guard, as any number of players can spurt and be the leading scorer.
OSU’s recruiting class for this year listed four top-100 players, all of whom were four-star recruits. So far in this early season, all four have made great contributions to the team’s success.
6-foot-6 forward Brice Sensabaugh, ranked No. 63 overall nationally in the class, actually leads the Buckeyes in scoring, averaging just over 14 points a game. And he does it in only about 18 minutes of playing time per 40-minute game.
Bruce Thornton, a 6-foot-2 guard, ranked No. 48 nationally at any position, and No. 10 among point guards. He’s playing 27.5 minutes a game and averaging (as mentioned above) 9.9 points, with a really good 52% shooting percentage for this field goal attempts.
The highest-rated player in the class (at No. 47, No. 2 among shooting guards), Roddy Gayle, Jr., is playing about 15 minutes a game and averaging five points.
The fourth top-10 recruit is Nigerian Felix Okpara. At 6-foot-11, Okpara was the No. 13-rated center in the class nationally, and also sees a lot of court time for the Buckeyes. He’s averaging 13.4 minutes, four points, and just over four rebounds a game.
No matter how you shake it, that’s a lot of production from six newcomers.
And the veterans?
Key and Sueing
Well, they’re clearly the team leaders.
Zed Key is averaging eight rebounds and 13.4 points a game, and no doubt those figures would be higher if it weren’t for his leaving the early season blowout games early. Watching him muscle out Duke players for boards was a joy (Yes, I’m a Duke basketball hater).
As for Sueing, it’s so good just to see him playing again, and the versatile 6-foot-6 player is having quite a year. He’s averaging 13 points and five rebounds a game.
The season so far
Maybe we’re surprised that the Buckeyes cracked the AP Top 25 so early in this season. Obviously, with so many new faces, it was very hard to predict how good this team would be.
But they’ve taken care of business with the early-season warmup games against Robert Morris, Charleston Southern, Eastern Illinois, and St. Francis — winning all of them by at least 22 points.
Then there was the Maui Invitational. The Buckeyes dropped their first game of the season in the tournament’s first round, losing to No. 17 San Diego State, 88-77. Moving into the “losers’ bracket,” the Bucks had a surprisingly easy victory over old-time, in-state rival Cincinnati, 81-53. Keep in mind that this Cincy team had lost narrowly the previous day to highly regarded Arizona. Then, in the battle for fifth place in the tourney, Ohio State handled No. 21 Texas Tech, 80-73, in a hard-fought game.
The wins in Hawaii earned the Buckeyes their Top 25 ranking. OSU’s other loss came at Cameron Indoor Stadium to the Duke Blue Devils, 81-72. Sad, but surely no disgrace.
The tough early schedule will, no doubt, help the Buckeyes as they now begin the meat of the schedule. The Big Ten is very, very good this year (five teams currently ranked), and winning any games on the road will be a challenge. It will be quite interesting to see how this new team fares as the season progresses.
From what I’ve seen, I think that they’ll be OK and continue to improve as the they move along. I’m looking for a strong season and a good NCAA Tournament seed.