Building a roster dependent (to some degree) on transfer players is nothing new for the Ohio State men’s basketball team, especially under Chris Holtmann. I don’t think he gravitates towards or prefers the transfer portal, but this is the new normal for college athletics. Players have the freedom to move around and look for the right fit, and at the end of the day, the portal has helped OSU more than it has hurt them. All’s well that ends well, I suppose.
This offseason presents an even greater challenge for Coach Holtmann and his staff. Yes, they have a great recruiting class coming in, and that helps. On paper. Five freshmen should be integral to the team’s future success, and I think the group has a high collective ceiling. But they are unproven at the college level. I am going to ignore any freshman projections (for now) and focus on what we know or believe the team is losing.
The Buckeyes are likely losing their two best players – each of whom is projected to go in the first round of the NBA Draft – and a number of other role players. The program could have faced a similar situation last year, but E.J. Liddell decided to come back and improve his game. You could argue that OSU was a better team in 2021-22, because they entered the NCAA Tournament as a 2-seed, but the (potential) loss of talent is significantly greater this offseason.
Liddell substantially improved his game from one year to the next, and Malaki Branham turned out to be a star. If both leave, as is expected, Holtmann will find himself in uncharted territory. He has never been forced to deal with the loss of two premier talents, and the program has not dealt with such losses since the Greg Oden/Mike Conley/Daequan Cook trio left following the 2006-07 season. I’m not comparing Liddell and Branham to Oden and Conley, but both tandems were the obvious head of the proverbial snake.
In addition to the confirmed and/or expected departures of Liddell and Branham, (now) former Buckeyes Kyle Young, Jamari Wheeler, Joey Brunk, Cedric Russell, and Jimmy Sotos have all exhausted their eligibility. Justin Ahrens announced his intent to transfer on Monday, running the number of known losses to seven. Justice Sueing and Seth Towns could join the mass exodus, but I would expect at least one of those guys to return – if not both. In total, Ohio State is losing – or has the potential to lose – about 50 years of college basketball experience and roughly 80 percent of their scoring from this season.
So what does OSU need? First and foremost, they must go out and grab an all-conference, two-way player who is capable of being named to the Wooden Award watch list. Easier said than done, but shouldn’t be an issue. Second on the priority list is a supreme shot creator with one-and-done potential. Those are a dime-a-dozen, no problem... Hopefully you’ve caught on to the sarcasm by now, because I’m laying it on pretty thick.
In reality, the Buckeyes are not going to replace Liddell and Branham. Hopefully they don’t have to replace the stud freshman. But they can still go after players who share a similar-enough skillset, and guys that have a previous history of production and/or success. The rest of the buildout should be aimed at finding players who can replace one or two things that the outgoing players did very well. That is what we’re looking at here. Keep in mind that players can fit into more than one category.
Scoring presence/potential go-to guy
Good news! Holtmann and his staff have already checked this one off the list. Look, I understand that Tanner Holden filled up the stat sheet in a smaller conference, and the same was said about Cedric Russell a year ago. But I am infinitely more excited about the Wright State transfer. Holden is more efficient than Russell ever dreamt of being (no offense to Cedric), and his defense/rebounding does not make him a liability in other facets of the game (seriously, no offense to Cedric). His worst shooting percentage for a season is 49.7. He does not force three-point attempts, he gets to the FT line a bunch, and he won’t be smothered by much larger defenders at his position.
While Holden is not likely to put up the 20 PPG he averaged at WSU, this Ohio native could step in and give the Buckeyes 15 on a consistent basis. He and Sueing could be interchangeable on the wing, or share the floor regularly. Holden was a tremendous get, and gives Ohio State a known bucket-getter to help fill the scoring void left by Liddell and Branham.
Point guard... point guard, point guard, point guard
Bruce Thornton is another fresh face I am looking forward to seeing, but let’s not pretend that freshman point guards are reliable. Georgia’s Mr. Basketball has a little bit of everything in his bag, and OSU fans should be very excited about his future, but the Buckeyes need a proven, steady ball-handler to help run the offense. If Thornton is the second coming of Mike Conley or De’Angelo Russell, great... but you can never have too many point guards — which is something I think OSU learned the hard way this season. PG play was awful with Wheeler out of the game. Holtmann has gone to the “PG transfer well” multiple times during his time in Columbus and generally found success. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it...
CJ Walker and Wheeler are recent examples of Holtmann looking for experience over excitment, specifically at the PG position. Both Walker and Wheeler were proven vets, known for playing within themselves, taking care of the basketball, and finding open teammates. Good-to-great defense was icing on the cake with those guys. Next year’s team will need a similar steady hand.
If you look back on games from this recently completed season, you would have to say that the ball was in Liddell, Branham, or Wheeler’s hands most of the time. Sueing (if he returns) can handle the ball, and I’m not forgetting about Meechie Johnson, but neither player is a true point guard. Even if Ohio State were to land a Jimmy Sotos-level PG, I think it would pay huge dividends for them. With a team full of unknowns, it would be very beneficial to find a guy who does know what to do with the ball in his hands consistently.
The Buckeyes shot 36.5 percent from beyond the arc this season... I know, I’m as shocked as you are. I would have guessed 26.5. Despite ranking inside the top-50 nationally in three-point percentage, the team lacked a dangerous (and remotely consistent) perimeter specialist. Liddell and Branham were efficient from the outside, but hardly volume-shooters and the same could be said for Wheeler. Ahrens was expected to break out and be that guy in his fourth season, but it never came to fruition. Now Meechie is the top returning “shooter”, which does not inspire much confidence.
This team needs a marksman a la Jon Diebler — or what Ahrens was at his best. Snipers are not easy to come by, but the Buckeyes could desperately use a floor spacer to offset the inside presence of Zed Key and the slashing/scoring abilities of Holden and hopefully Sueing. The lack of consistent shooting this season was particularly noticeable when looking at assist numbers and/or the effectiveness of Wheeler as a creator. He led the team with just 2.9 assists per game, but did not have an abundance of options to kick it to. His low assist numbers were impacted greatly by the players around him. I’m not saying OSU needs Larry Bird out there, but the current lack of shooting is worrisome.
Ohio State is losing Liddell, Young, and Brunk... that’s it. I have nothing else profound to say regarding their departures. What I will point out, is that all three averaged at least five rebounds as starters/rotational pieces. Don’t forget, Brunk has a mini-Shaq run for three games, during which he averaged close to seven boards per game. All three are now gone.
The addition of Tanner Holden as a rebounding wing will help, as would the potential return of Sueing, but the Buckeyes are still lacking significant size. Incoming freshman Felix Okpara is a hyper-athletic big, but he will need to bulk up and gain more experience. The rest of the front line consists of Zed Key and... Zed Key. We saw what happened when Young and Key struggled with injuries this year, so it should really go without saying that OSU needs guys who can play the four and/or five spots.
In a few months, I truly believe that Holtmann and the Buckeyes will be fine heading into the 2022-23 season. But there are a ton of moving parts when it comes to the future roster, and I think it’s fair to express concern. As of right now – today – Ohio State fans can confidently say that it consists of Zed Key, Meechie Johnson, Eugene Brown, Kalen Etzler, Harrison Hookfin, Tanner Holden, and five incoming freshmen. Simply put: that’s not going to get it done, folks.
Sueing announcing his return would be a huge development. He was pretty damn good last year. He is also a veteran of nearly 100 games, at a time when the Buckeyes need experience. And Towns would be a bonus lottery ticket. But the team has roles to fill, and certain “types” of players would fit well together with the current squad.