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Column: How position-less basketball could work (or fail) for Ohio State this season

Tanner Holden at point? How about power forward Justice Sueing? Odds are you will see both this season at some point.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oral Roberts at Ohio State Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

As we’ve learned over the five seasons that Chris Holtmann has been at the helm of the Ohio State men’s basketball program, he absolutely loves versatility. He loves having multiple players who can guard multiple positions, play different roles on offense, and just generally fill in wherever needed. His recruiting — especially lately — reflects this. But Ohio State looks ready to completely embrace the “position-less basketball” theory during the 2022-2023 season.

There was a mass diaspora from the 2021-2022 Ohio State men’s basketball team for a myriad of reasons. Meechie Johnson and Justin Ahrens both chose to transfer. E.J. Liddell and Malaki Branham are headed to the 2022 NBA Draft. Cedric Russell, Jimmy Sotos, Joey Brunk, Kyle Young, Harrison Hookfin, and Jamari Wheeler are all too old to play and ran out of eligibility. This year’s roster is going to look completely different with just five returning players.

But while the mass exodus was unfolding, a wave of young talent and experienced transfers simultaneously rolled in. Ohio State’s incoming freshmen class — which is No. 11 in the nation — includes five players, four of whom are top-100 players and two of which are in the top-50. Then there’s the two transfers that have joined the program — Tanner Holden and Sean McNeil.

NCAA Basketball: Horizon Conference Tournament-Northern Kentucky vs Wright State Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

The Buckeyes accrued a nice collection of talent here, but the way the pieces fit positionally is a bit puzzling. As it stands, Chris Holtmann has exactly one point guard on the roster —freshman Bruce Thornton. There are seven or eight players who play either the two or three (shooting guard and small forward) positions:

  • Bowen Hardman (Redshirt is also a possibility)
  • Roddy Gayle
  • Brice Sensabaugh
  • Justice Sueing
  • Seth Towns
  • Gene Brown
  • Tanner Holden
  • Sean McNeil

Kalen Etzler is probably the only “true” power forward on this roster, but after a full-season redshirt last year there is essentially a 0% chance he starts at that position — or any position — this season. And then Zed Key and Felix Okpara are your low post players/centers.

So you’ve got a solid center in Key, who jumped from 5.2 PPG as a freshman to 7.8 PPG as a sophomore. I think he’ll make a similar jump into his junior season and should be a solid double-digit scorer this year.

You have a phenomenally talented young point guard in Thornton, although as a freshman there will be bumps and growing pains. There will be some head-scratching mistakes and some games where Ohio State fans will turn on him, even if just for a moment. But don’t worry, Thornton will be a very solid player. However, do we want to push a freshman into 30+ minutes per game as the floor general? It’s not ideal.

And then, as I stated earlier, you’ve got about eight players who could start at shooting guard or small forward. Simple math says all eight cannot start. But at this point, the Buckeyes only have one scholarship remaining. It isn’t going to be a guard, so what you see is what you get with OSU’s point guard situation. It’s likely to be a power forward or center, but we’re not sure if it’ll end up being an impact player who starts right away, or more of a depth guy off the bench — at this stage of the game, my money is on the latter.

Which means yes, Ohio State is going to roll out some funky lineups this season that don’t exactly go by the book. Thornton is not going to play 35 minutes per night, which means other players — who are not point guards by trade, not even a little bit — will handle the rock at times.

HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL: JAN 17 Spalding Hoophall Classic Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Two seasons ago when CJ Walker was injured, 6-foot-7, 215-pounds Sueing was asked to run point a bit. It wasn’t a huge success, but it wasn’t a failure, either. He got the job done despite not really being much of a creator for others. Certainly, he’s more useful in other ways.

Holden primarily played small forward at Wright State, but most databases classify him as a shooting guard at 6-foot-6 and 175 pounds. Could he carry some of the point guard load when Thornton is not? Yes, and I think Holden is one of the biggest candidates to do so despite his lack of experience with it previously.

And then at the power forward position, is Sueing, Towns, or Brown the answer? Could it be Sensabaugh down the line? Ohio State doesn’t have one player who really fits the by-the-book definition of a big, bruising, (but relatively mobile) power forward. But someone has to start there, right? It very well could be the mystery transfer that gets that 13th scholarship. But until that spot is filled, we have to work with what we have.

Right now, hammering down a starting lineup is nearly impossible without knowing what the coaching staff is planning for these guys. But if I had to guess, the most likely lineup is:

  • Bruce Thornton
  • Sean McNeil
  • Tanner Holden
  • Justice Sueing
  • Zed Key

So in essence, you have a traditional point guard, a traditional center, three guys who can slide back and forth from shooting guard to small forward, and nobody who really seems like a true power forward.

West Virginia v Kansas Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Again, nailing a starting lineup on May 2 is about as easy as predicting the weather for Memorial Day weekend on May 2. But what’s abundantly clear is that the staff trusts that several players on this roster are skilled enough to contribute in multiple roles — even if they are roles they haven’t played before. It could lead to a really fun, explosive brand of basketball where the best players flourish because of their versatility. Or, it could expose the positional holes on the roster as well as its youth.

Scenario 1: It works like a charm

Thornton adapts to college basketball seamlessly and averages 12.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.8 assists (vs. just 1.7 turnovers) per game while averaging 27 minutes per contest. Holden averages 17 points per game while mostly playing small forward, and Sueing is a second-team All Big Ten honoree after averaging 16.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 3 assists per game at power forward.

The team doesn’t have one great rebounder, but as a unit they crash the glass well for their size. They rank somewhere between sixth and eighth in the Big Ten in rebounding, and rarely cough up the basketball. When Thornton is out, Holden and Sueing share point guard duties. They don’t dish out many assists between the two of them, but they take care of the basketball and get it past half court without incident more times than not, which is all you can ask. Ohio State finishes top-four in the Big Ten and earns a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament in large part thanks to their versatility.

Scenario 2: Teams expose Ohio State due their size, lack of ball-handlers

Thornton gets off to a rocky start and has a 1:2 assist-to-turnover ratio through the first eight games of the season, two of which Ohio State loses. Thornton is benched in favor of Sueing, who slides up to the point guard spot despite that not being his natural position. Sensabaugh suddenly takes Sueing’s place at power forward, despite only averaging 4.2 points and 3 rebounds per game at that point in the season.

Teams begin to trap and press Sueing at every opportunity, knowing he’s not playing his natural position. The Buckeyes begin to turn the ball over at a frustratingly high rate, giving away points off turnovers frequently. Big Ten teams with large centers (Michigan, Purdue, etc.) manhandle Ohio State on the glass — especially on the offensive end. Things begin to break down due to the instability at the point guard position and the Buckeyes’ inability to keep people off the offensive glass. Ohio State scratches and claws their way to a 10-10 record in Big Ten play and earns a 9-seed in the NCAA Tournament, setting them up to play a 1-seed in the second round, should they advance.

I would not be shocked if the 2022-2023 season turns out more like scenario one. Several people have told me they think this year’s team could be Holtmann’s deepest one yet —even if there isn’t one Liddell or Branham-caliber player on it. Lots of folks think that — as long as the coaching staff doesn’t complicate things too much — several players could step in as point guard, or slide over to the power forward position. I still think rebounding could be an issue, but the prevailing logic still checks out. Get your best players on the floor, and let the rest work itself out. Texas Tech has been following this model the last several seasons, and they’ve been wildly successful. Villanova did the same under Jay Wright. Position-less basketball can absolutely work.

I also would not be shocked if the 2022-2023 season plays out more like scenario two. Ohio State was 12th in the Big Ten last year in both overall rebounding and offensive rebounding last season. To make it worse, their leading rebounder is now off to the NBA, and Ohio State has not added an impact post player who can replace any of those rebounds. Holden and McNeil are fine players, but they’ll combine for what, a max of eight rebounds per game? Maybe Key averages six or seven, and Sueing does the same. Rebounding could be a more severe problem than last season.

As we saw last season at times, letting teams dominate you on the glass saps a team’s energy and is emotionally draining when defensive stops go for naught, because the other teams just keeps corralling their own misses. That issue could be even more crucial than who is playing point guard on any particular day. Just get the ball over half court without coughing it up — that’s the bare minimum and most players on this roster can do that.