After the men’s basketball Buckeyes’ end of the regular season slump, diehard fans looked at last year and hoped for a similar turnaround in the Big Ten tournament. That didn’t happen, as the Bucks gave up an early lead and lost, rather unexpectedly, to the Penn State Nittany Lions.
We knew that big man Kyle Young wouldn’t play in the tourney opener, but Zed Key and Meechie Johnson Jr. were possibilities. As the game went on and they still didn’t play, I figured that Chris Holtmann was holding them out for a Friday match-up with Purdue. But the game got close, then the Nits took the lead, and we still didn’t see Key or Johnson.
Now the Buckeyes limp into the NCAA Tournament. Their projected seeding has dropped considerably, and we’ll have to tune in to the selection show to see where they end up. They’re likely, however, to face a challenge in the first round.
Things fall apart
Ohio State finished the regular season 5-5 over their last 10 games. The unbeaten home streak went down the drain with losses to Michigan, Nebraska, and Iowa. The Buckeyes looked good against Illinois and Michigan State and routed a woeful Minnesota team, but, at other times, struggled at both ends of the court.
Injuries to Young, Key, and Johnson increased the difficulties, and OSU finds itself 1-4 over their last five games. Let’s take a look at those efforts.
With those guys out, Holtmann’s rotation has been very thin, sometimes limited to playing just eight guys in a game. The injured players are all “hustle guys,” who play hard. When they go down, someone has to be there to step up — both in effort and in scoring. Joey Brunk has been a pleasant surprise, but he can’t carry the team. Neither can E.J. Liddell or Malaki Branham, even together. Who else is there?
Over this last five-game skid, guards Jamari Wheeler and Cedric Russell have both shot the ball well. Wheeler (despite a couple of early airballs against PSU) has hit 50% of his shots (18 for 36) and half of his 3-point attempts (12 for 24). Russell’s shooting is even better: 42% overall and 58% (7 for 12) from beyond the arc.
The problem is that even though both of these players are getting extended playing time, they’re not taking many shots. Whether that’s because they’re having difficulty shaking free and getting looks, or because there aren’t any plays being drawn up for them, or because the Bucks can’t execute those plays, I don’t know.
There seems to be some potential with these two, but they need more important roles in the offense if they’re going to make a real difference, especially if the regular contributors who have been out lately can’t return.
Ohio State has relied heavily on the three-point shot this season. And, frankly, they’ve usually been pretty good at it. At season’s end, however, the long ball, even from Liddell (31%) and Branham (28%), has been elusive. Justin Ahrens hasn’t seen a lot of playing time in these final five games, but he’s shooting a respectable 36% (5 for 14) from three. Eugene Brown III is 1 for 11 (11%), and Johnson has missed all six of his long shots and is only 1-for-9 overall. As we head into the NCAA Tournament, I don’t think that we can expect much from these guys in terms of point production.
The Big Dance
If Ohio State gets a seven seed, say, they should be favored by at least several points in the first round. Momentum? Not much. Confidence? Ditto. Returning players would provide a big boost. It’s hard to tell with concussions, so I don’t know whether Young will be available. But Zed Key should be, and he’ll make a difference. He’ll take a lot of pressure off of Liddell with his defense and his rebounding. Key is capable, too, of putting up some points. The guards should feed him in order to get an inside game going.
Additionally, Wheeler and Russell have to be conscious of taking the shot. It seems that both of them (surprisingly for Russell, especially) have seemed hesitant. Branham and Wheeler, on their drives, should look to Russell on kick-outs if they can’t get to the basket themselves.
Key and Liddell should be able to screen at the top of the key to allow the guards some jumpers. The point is a simple one: People other than Liddell and Branham need to score.
Once the weekend is over and we get a look at the tournament bracket, I’ll discuss what I see as the Buckeyes’ chances of advancing. To salvage some pride in what was until recently a promising season, OSU will need to grab at least one win in the big dance.
However the tournament goes for the Buckeyes, next season looks to be a rebuilding year. So many Buckeyes will be moving on, that there likely won’t be many familiar faces. Fortunately, the Buckeyes are bringing in a top-5 national recruiting class, so hopefully, that helps, but with the likes of Liddell, Branham, Young, Wheeler, Russell, Ahrens, Jimmy Sotos, and others likely (or guaranteed) to depart, another dip into the transfer portal is going to be necessary.