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Column: With the regular season drawing to a close, here are reflections on the current state of Ohio State hoops and super-frosh Malaki Branham

The big win over Michigan State might help restore a better seed.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about March Madness, and, at that time, the picture was rosy for the Ohio State Buckeyes. They looked certain to get one of the coveted double byes in the Big Ten conference tournament, and maybe a 4-seed in the NCAA madness.

Tournament seeds

That was then. Now, Iowa has gone on a five-game winning streak and has seized the No. 4 Big Ten seed from the Bucks, who, after a tremendous win at Illinois, lost ugly, ugly games to Maryland and Nebraska. Retrieving the double bye is possible, but Ohio State would need to beat Michigan on Sunday and Iowa would need to lose at Illinois. This combination would give OSU the double seed.

If both teams win, they will have the same conference record (as they do currently), and the Hawkeyes win the tiebreaker because of their 75-62 win over the Buckeyes in their only matchup. Similarly, if Purdue loses to Indiana, the Boilermakers would win the tiebreaker with the Buckeyes too.

The Big Dance seeding for OSU will depend on whether they can pick up a couple of wins in the conference tourney. Gurus have dropped the Bucks’ projected seed. Joe Lunardi of ESPN, for example, gives the Buckeyes a No. 6 seed — a notch or two below where they’ve been projected.

Up and down performances

Frankly, Ohio State hasn’t been consistently strong, especially over the past few weeks.

They’re 6-4 in their last 10 games, and despite the Michigan State win, it’s hard to say that they’re on the rise. With the makeup games against Iowa and Nebraska (both losses, by the way) crammed into an already tight schedule, the Buckeyes have had a treacherous run of games in a short spell. Additionally, big men Zed Key and Kyle Young have both missed the last two games — the loss to the Cornhuskers and the win over the Spartans.

With the schedule, the injuries, the losses, I was floored by how well Ohio State played against Michigan State. Leading from start to finish, they shot extremely well, held their own on the boards, and had fewer turnovers than of late. The announcers were no more surprised than I to witness Joey Brunk’s performance, and I’m impressed with the lineups that coach Chris Holtmann ran with a limited number of players at his disposal.

By and large, the Buckeyes relied on their starters and got a very balanced attack, as Jamari Wheeler and Brunk joined E.J. Liddell and Malaki Branham as big scorers. Watching this game brought some of my optimism back for this club.

Malaki Branham has arrived

I had tentatively planned to write this entire piece on the emergence of freshman guard Malaki Branham, but I got distracted by the up and down play of the Buckeyes. With the exception of a poor shooting night (4-of-13) at Maryland and difficulty shaking defenders against Michigan, Branham has been reliable – almost to the point of stardom.

In his last 10 games, Branham has scored in double figures eight times — four times over 20 points, once over 30. Since he’s picky with his shot selection, his shooting percentage is sky high: for his 272 shots over the course of the season, he’s popped nearly 49% of them, 44% from behind the 3-point line. He’s also hitting 81% of his free throws.

Casual fans might regard Branham as a long-range shooter. In fact, however, only 28% of his shots have been three-point attempts. What are the others? Drives to the basket for sweet lay-ins or powerful dunks, pull-up jumpers from the 10 to 12 feet distance. Branham is big and quick, and the drive is his most lethal weapon. His game falters when he settles for long shots, as he did in the Maryland loss when he shot six three balls and made only one.

Sure, I’d like to see more assists and fewer turnovers from the freshman, but his numbers have improved to a respectable 53 assists against 41 turnovers. But let’s face it: Malaki Branham is a scorer. That’s why he’s on the floor, and that’s what he’s expected to do.

What’s the future hold for Branham?

Branham has had a great first season for the Buckeyes. Is he, then, the future of the team? A lot of the current roster will be gone next year. Liddell will head to the NBA (most mock drafts place him in the mid-20s of the first round). Wheeler, Young, Justin Ahrens, and Cedric Russell are probably gone. I don’t know what Justice Sueing’s situation will be. In any case, Branham would be the star, the leader, the center of attention. The scoring burden would fall heavily on him, and I would expect him to take advantage and put up some eye-popping numbers.

As Branham has improved so much over the second half of the season, there has been increasing speculation that he might be a “one and done,” that he would submit to the NBA draft after this 2021-22 season. Out of curiosity, I checked out five different NBA mock drafts. Branham appeared in only two of them (NBA Draftroom and Bleacher Reports). Both of them, though, had him in the first round: the Draftroom had him as the #14 pick and the newest Bleacher Report had him at #28. With the shooting tear that he’s been on, Branham could start appearing in the other mock drafts as well.

What’s at stake for a young player? Well, returning to Ohio State for next year has a big upside. Branham is local, from Columbus, and would get to star for a team in his backyard, in front of family and friends. A second year of Big Ten competition would, without a doubt, improve his game and probably improve his draft status. On the other hand, it could be argued that Branham has little left to prove at the collegiate level and could, just as easily, improve his game against professional competition.

And the projected 2022 NBA drafts are packed at the top with freshman: Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith from Auburn, Duke’s Paolo Banchero and A.J. Griffin, Shaedon Sharpe from Kentucky and Memphis player Jalen Daren. The NBA likes young players.

And then there’s the money. Using the 2021 draft as a comparison, we can see that the No. 1 pick signed a contract bringing him a little over $10 million a year and $45.6 million over four years. No. 15? $3.4 million the first year, $16.4 million over four.

Even the last player taken in the first round (No. 30) inked a contract worth considerably less but still not too shabby at just under $2 million a year and a bit over $10 million over the length of the four-year contract. It’s hard for a 19-year-old, or anybody, to walk away from that kind of money. Malaki Branham has some key games ahead of him this year and then a decision to make.

One more regular season game against TTUN and then the tournaments begin. Let’s all root for the Illini against Iowa to help the Buckeyes regain that double bye.