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With plenty of new faces, will Ohio State’s defense step up this season?

The pieces assembled on this roster certainly don’t point in that direction.

Syndication: Journal-Courier Nikos Frazier / Journal & Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

The 2022-23 season for the Ohio State men’s basketball program is one that is currently shrouded in mystery.

The incoming freshman class, which is a top-10 class in the nation and made up of five players, will see a lot of minutes from November on. When 38% of your team is made up of freshmen, there’s no time for coddling or easing them in — they’ll need to perform right away. There are key returnees with injury question marks — namely Justice Sueing and Seth Towns. Are we looking at All-Conference caliber vets, or two guys who once again will sit out a large chunk of the season? And of course, the three transfers — Isaac Likekele, Tanner Holden, and Sean McNeil. How quickly will they find success? Will their numbers simply translate to the Big Ten, or will we see a slide?

Okay, to say the upcoming season is “shrouded in mystery” may be a bit much. But the three questions I noted above essentially covers the entire roster. How about that! There’s a comically wide range of outcomes that could unfold for Ohio State this season, with the worst possible scenario seeing them miss the NCAA Tournament completely and the best scenario having them compete right at the top of the Big Ten for a title.

But the most important thing the 2022-23 team has to recapture — the thing Chris Holtmann’s teams were so good at when he first arrived — is the ability to guard the basketball. So simple, yet so painfully difficult over the past two seasons. And yet, Holtmann’s team were borderline elite on that end of the floor during his first three seasons:

KenPom Offense and Defense Ranks, 2018-2022

Year Offense Defense
Year Offense Defense
2017-2018 23 15
2018-2019 84 25
2019-2020 13 19
2020-2021 4 82
2021-2022 13 111

The shift from a “defensively-minded but also efficient on offense” team to an “elite offense but downright hard to watch on defense” team happened swiftly, and with consequence. Yes, Ohio State earned a two-seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, but at what cost? In the end, their inability to get consecutive stops turned their NCAA Tournament run into one of the most laughable losses in recent memory — to 15-seed Oral Roberts, the fourth-place team in the regular season in the Summit League.

And this past season, with not one, but two NBA Draftees, the defense was even worse. A player’s ability to defend in college or how they fared defensively in college does not have a ton of weight on their NBA draft stock — see: Malaki Branham. But with two players as talented on the offensive end as Branham and E.J. Liddell, you’d hope that the Buckeyes could’ve earned something higher than a seven-seed, and therefore avoided a potential matchup with a 2-seed like Villanova.

This season, success and connectedness on the defensive end will ultimately determine how far Ohio State goes in both the Big Ten and the NCAA Tournament — if they make it. Each of the past two seasons, the Buckeyes were buoyed by two or more elite offensive players. Two seasons ago it was Liddell and Duane Washington Jr., who now plays for the Indiana Pacers. Last season, it was Liddell and Branham. Defensive shortcomings bit them in March Madness both years, but raw talent and willpower on the offensive end won them quite a few regular season games.

But this season, they don’t appear to have comparable firepower on the offensive end that they had each of the past two seasons. There is no Duane Washington to knock down four shots over a 60-second stretch. There is no E.J. Liddell to back his caboose into the paint and score over top of anyone he chooses. There is no Malaki Branham to calm everyone down with a contested mid-range jumper.

It’s not like teams without a true “star” can’t be successful. But if Ohio State wants to compete at the top of their conference, they’ll need to make up for some expected offensive deficiencies with a reliable defense that shows up every single night. You can win a ton of games shooting 35% from the floor in college basketball if you pair that with suffocating defense. You will win very few games if you pair 35% shooting with the same defense we’ve seen from the Buckeyes over the past two seasons.

And therein lies the big question: does this roster, as it is constructed today, look like one that can return to the defensive levels of the 2018-2020 teams?

No, I don’t think so. And that could be problematic.

Last season’s team had too many players who weren’t just poor defenders, they were clear mismatches regardless of who they took on. Justin Ahrens, Cedric Russell, Joey Brunk, Jimmy Sotos, Meechie Johnson — and at times Gene Brown — could not be on the floor for certain stretches when Ohio State needed stops. But shoot, that’s nearly half your roster! That was the problem. Too many players that were clear mismatches... 24/7 mismatches.

Most of the players I listed above have moved on now, and to his credit Gene Brown has earned the benefit of the doubt on the defensive end. There were some rough moments last season, but for the most part he’s been a tall, versatile wing who can guard 2-4 when needed. But the other five have moved on, plus several others.

But don’t be so sure the eight players walking through those doors will perform any better on that end.... at least not until you see it with your eyes. Ohio State is still starting a 6-foot-8 center in Zed Key who has been taken to town by bigger post players on more than one occasion, but has also shown the patience and discipline needed to frustrate those same kinds of players.

The Buckeyes were horrid guarding the ball last season, and got very little offensive or defensive value from point guards. This year it looks like those duties will be split between Likekele and Bruce Thornton — a transfer and a freshman, respectively. Sean McNeil and Tanner Holden are two guards who weren’t known for their defense at their previous stops, and weren’t brought to Columbus because they are stoppers. But that does not mean they can’t improve.

And as I noted way at the very top, there are five freshmen — four of which are expected to get pretty regular run right from the jump (sorry, Bowen Hardman). Freshmen don’t typically create reputations for being a defensive menace — Aaron Crafts and Brad Davisons are the exception. The more likely scenario is that Thornton, Brice Sensabaugh, Felix Okpara, and Roddy Gayle slowly improve as the season goes on, but none of the four become lockdown defenders as freshmen.

There’s quite a bit unknown with this roster, and because of that, my confidence in Ohio State bouncing back to their pre-2020 levels of defensive intensity and connectedness is very low. That’s also why I’m pretty cool in general on this team right now. But it is just July, and a lot could change before now and say, January.

Here are a few things that would help Ohio State begin to find their defensive identity and shake off two-seasons of poor defense:

  • Likekele runs point, and guards opposing point guards — don’t leave this task to a freshman. A versatile, energetic guard would do wonders for this team.
  • Key is the starting pitcher and Okpara is the closer — even if Okpara’s offensive game is raw, it sounds like his defense could be impactful right away with his crazy leaping ability and 7-foot-3 wingspan. Coaches love to sub offense for defense late in games, maybe Okpara becomes a defensive weapon in closing minutes?
  • Justice Sueing is healthy — Ohio State’s success this year will largely hinge on Sueing’s health. At 6-foot-7 and nearly 220 pounds he’s a switchable piece that could help plug some holes on defense.

Expectation: Ohio State has their best defensive showing in three seasons, but still finishes somewhere between 50-60 nationally in defensive efficiency on KenPom.