With the second-round NCAA tournament loss to Villanova, the Ohio State basketball season ended abruptly. All that’s left is to examine the year, what went wrong, what went well, what might have been.
Heading into the season
Buckeye fans were pretty optimistic in the fall of 2021 as the college basketball season approached. Bonafide star E.J. Liddell was returning and would obviously lead this Buckeye team. The third-leading scorer from 2020-21, Justice Sueing, was also back, as were key players Kyle Young and Justin Ahrens. Big man Zed Key looked promising in his freshman season, and everyone expected more out of him this year.
Worries? Sure. Especially at guard. Leading scorer Duane Washington Jr. was gone and so was C.J. Walker, the guy who made the offense go, a guy who averaged 4.4 assists per game. Their replacements were largely unknown quantities. Meechie Johnson and Eugene Brown III had both played sparingly during the previous season. They might be OK. Star defensive player Jamari Wheeler had transferred in from Penn State, and he looked to be a starter. Another transfer, Cedric Russell, was reputed to be a great shooter and was counted on to put up some points. Then, there was Ohio’s “Mr. Basketball,” Malaki Branham. Highly touted, but untested. Nevertheless, I thought that the guards would be all right.
The non-conference schedule
Narrow wins over Akron and Niagara shook up the Buckeye faithful. But a blowout victory over Bowling Green and close games (1 win, 2 losses) away from home against quality teams – Xavier, Seton Hall, and Florida – made things look a bit better. Some problems to work on, but the upset of #1 Duke in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge seemed to make the problems disappear.
The Big Ten games
The Buckeyes followed up on the Duke win with victories at Penn State and against ranked Wisconsin. Moving up in the national rankings, the Bucks were looking good in the middle of December. Then COVID-19 struck. Three consecutive games, between December 18 and December 28, were cancelled, including a Las Vegas showcase matchup against Kentucky.
With the holidays over, OSU returned to action on January 2 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Oh, yes, there was some rust. The Bucks didn’t play particularly well against the last-place Cornhuskers, winning in overtime. Four days later, they looked downright bad as they got mauled by Indiana 67-51 in Bloomington.
As the conference schedule continued, Ohio State took care of business against lesser teams – Northwestern, Penn State, Minnesota, and Maryland – but lost at Wisconsin and then a heartbreaker (remember Jaden Ivey?) at Purdue. Two more games were postponed, and we all were dismayed because they were home games against Nebraska and Iowa and looked like wins. At the time, mid-February, we were talking about padding the OSU resume for NCAA seeding.
A loss at Rutgers demonstrated the Buckeyes’ inconsistency.
Towards the end of the conference schedule, the Bucks had some amazingly strong games at Illinois and at home against Indiana. But then, things spiraled downward in a lopsided loss at Maryland. Zed Key hurt his ankle and didn’t play in a home loss to Nebraska. That game also witnessed another concussion for Kyle Young, who played only eight minutes. Young and Key would both miss the next three Buckeye games, two of which (Michigan at home and Penn State in the Big Ten tournament) were losses. In the one win, against Michigan State, Joey Brunk took up the slack in the frontcourt and scored 20 points. Young and Key returned to play in the NCAA tournament, but Young was again injured at a crucial moment in the Nova game.
And those two postponed games that we so wanted to play? They did some real damage. Not only were both games (Iowa and Nebraska) losses, but cramming the rescheduled matches into an already-busy schedule left the Buckeyes, with their depleted roster, simply exhausted. So, the season ended for the Buckeyes, who finished 20-12 overall, 12-8 in conference play. About the same as the previous year’s 21-10 overall, 12-8 in the Big Ten.
What was great about the season?
Anyone who followed the Buckeyes this year knows that two players stood out: E.J. Liddell and Malaki Branham. Liddell was third-team All American on several of the lists and made first-team All-Big Ten. Branham was Freshman of the Year in the conference and was third team All-Big Ten.
Liddell started all 32 of the Buckeye games and led the team in most categories: scoring with a 19.4 points average, rebounding with 7.9 per game, and blocked shots with 83 (Key was second with 24). Liddell shot 49% overall and 37.4% from three-point range. He was consistently good throughout the year and improved considerably on his 2020-21 stats.
Malaki Branham didn’t start in the opening game against Akron and scored only seven points. He did start against Niagara in the second game of the season – and all of the rest of them. Branham’s development as a player was a joy to watch. He ended up averaging 13.7 points per game (16.3 in Big Ten-play) and shot at nearly 50% (49.8), including 41.6% from beyond the arc.
No one else on the Buckeye squad, besides Liddell and Branham, averaged in double figures. Early in the season, I complained that Liddell couldn’t win championships by himself. Someone had to step up. Branham did. And then we found out that Liddell and Branham couldn’t win championships alone.
The many, many problems that marred the season
Injuries. First off were the injuries to Seth Towns and Justice Sueing. Towns averaged about four points per game in 2020-21 and was expected to be part of the frontcourt rotation. He didn’t play a game. Sueing’s loss was bigger. He would have been a sure starter this year after averaging 10.7 points per game last year, third on the team. He was also second in rebounding and would have been a rim presence this year. He played a total of 20 minutes in the first two games of the season. And although commentators continued to speculate on his return to the court, we never saw him again – except on the bench in street clothes.
Then, as I mentioned above, injuries to Key and Young really hampered the Buckeyes. They tried Brunk and Eugene Brown III to help Liddell inside, but they essentially had to rely on guard play. It didn’t work out so well.
The inside game. Yeah, injuries to these four big men hurt. But all through the season, I didn’t feel that Key and Young lived up to their potential. Key’s numbers improved during his sophomore year: scoring increased from 5.2 points per game to 7.8, rebounds from 3.4 per game to 5.6. And he would occasionally show flashes and have a breakout game. But he never really put it all together for several games in succession. Young’s numbers actually went down, but not by much. He still averaged a little over eight points and five rebounds per game. Those are the numbers of a role player, and I guess that’s what Kyle Young is. But he brought fire and effort and energy to the game, qualities that weren’t always present without him.
In short, the frontcourt was hurt by injuries and was only so-so for the season. The Buckeyes out-rebounded their foes for the season 1107-1023 but fell short on the offensive boards 329-288. Explanation? Well, the Bucks shot far better than their opponents for the season, and so there were fewer offensive rebounds to get. But both Young and Liddell frequently played at the top of the key, either looking for a 3-point shot or setting screens, and didn’t get position under the boards.
Guard play. Washington and Walker were sorely missed, and nobody picked up the slack. Branham excelled in the backcourt, but the other four guards that saw regular playing time were disappointing – even Jamari Wheeler. Wheeler’s vaunted defense and ball-stealing were good, but not great. Maybe my hopes were too high, but he looked better at Penn State. As a point guard and assist man, I’d give him a C+. Wheeler averaged fewer than three assists per game and had 51 turnovers. He often wasn’t able to get the offense into a rhythm, and players started playing one-on-one.
The other guards were worse. Cedric Russell looked at the beginning of the season that he could be a real contributor off the bench, maybe scoring 10-15 points. And, though he shot well, his defense was atrocious, and he had trouble getting his shot off. Additionally, he had 15 turnovers to go with only 13 assists for the season. Meechie Johnson, who started five of the Bucks’ games, averaged 4.4 points a game on 31% shooting. He, too, had more turnovers than assists, 35-31. Brown, more of a swingman than a true guard, shot better (44.2%) from the floor as he’s somewhat adept at driving to the bucket. His three-point shooting was pretty bad, however, at only 23%. His assist to turnover ratio was even at 14-14.
And Justin Ahrens? It’s hard to place him as a guard, but he usually plays outside. I’m sure that Chris Holtmann and most fans expected scoring from Ahrens. But it didn’t happen. He got cold fairly early in the season, never really warmed up, and, largely because of poor defense, saw his minutes decline steadily. Ahrens’ scoring dropped from an average of 5.7 points per game in 2020-21 to 4.8 points a game this year. He shot at about 35% overall and had 22 turnovers to 26 assists.
It’s not surprising that Ohio State had more turnovers than their opponents for the year, 358-325, and that their assists, as a percentage of baskets made, wasn’t very good. The guard play. It was a weakness all year. Among the commits in next year’s excellent class is four-star point guard Bruce Thornton. Don’t be surprised to see the freshman as a starter right out of the gate.
This Buckeye team fell short of not only our dreams, but our expectations. Injuries and cancellations are beyond anyone’s control, and they hurt Ohio State more than they hurt most teams. But if, in the end, you have only two players to boast about and struggle in both the frontcourt and the backcourt, you’re in trouble. Next year’s another season. We’ll see who’s back and we’ll see whether the four top-100 recruits live up to their billing.