When it comes to Ohio State basketball, there are two things that fans use as benchmarks: A regular season conference championship, and Sweet Sixteen appearances.
Ohio State has not made the Sweet Sixteen since 2013, and when they missed the Sweet Sixteen in 2014, that broke a four-year streak of the Buckeyes making it at least that far in the NCAA Tournament.
The criticism of the drought is fair, but it also deserves context. The Buckeyes went through a coaching change from Thad Matta to Chris Holtmann, and anytime that happens, it can take some time to get their footing back and getting recruiting back on track. Also, one of the tournaments was canceled due to COVID-19, and in Chris Holtmann’s first season, they ran into a tragically under-seeded Gonzaga team.
Context does matter, but at some point, reaching the Sweet Sixteen is important. And this is the season they do it.
There are a couple reasons I believe this. First of all, even though this team is young at plenty of spots and this team in particular hasn’t had a lot of time playing together (or really none at all), there are still some solid veterans on this team. Justice Sueing and Seth Towns are returning as key pieces for the team, and Isaac Likekele, Tanner Holden and Sean McNeil are all newcomers to OSU, but not newcomers to college basketball. Eugene Brown and Zed Key also both have the experience of starting in the NCAA tournament.
Not to mention, they brought in new assistant coach Jack Owens, who has spent time as a head coach at Miami (OH) and as the associate head coach to Matt Painter at Purdue, a program that is pretty familiar with the NCAA Tournament. His experiences and successes cannot be ignored.
Chris Holtmann is fantastic when it comes to making the tournament and getting out of the first round since arriving in Columbus. He has yet to miss the tourney, and they have only been knocked out in the first round one time despite drawing some difficult and tricky matchups over the years. It only takes one game to get over the hump and into the second round.
Another reason I like this team is their versatility. When you have guys like Likekele, Sueing, Holden, Brown and McNeil, you have a bunch of guys who can play pretty much the two through the four and can be swapped out and interchanged into different positions. This is key, because it can help with different offensive and defensive sets, keeping the other team constantly guessing, and it also helps depth. Last season, the Buckeyes were decimated by the injury bug and depth became a real concern. With seemingly 11 guys that can play in the rotation (assuming Sueing and Towns are healthy and ready to play real minutes), depth should not be a concern this season at all, even if injuries occur as they tend to do.
Point guard play is important in the tournament, and even though the Buckeyes really only have one true point guard and he is a freshman, they are still okay in that department. Likekele, Sueing and freshman Roddy Gayle all have some experience at the position, and can help play the one to take some pressure off Bruce Thornton. Although, everything we know about Thornton implies he will be ready to take on the challenge of starting point guard and playing heavy minutes immediately.
This team will also no stranger to big and important games. Not only do they have to play in the Big Ten conference, which granted should be a bit down from years past, the Buckeyes play three games in the loaded Maui Invitational. They also face off against both North Carolina and Duke, two Final Four teams in their non-conference schedule. This can lead to shaky feelings early as the record might start off rough if they don’t figure it out right away, but getting those games in early and getting battle tested can only provide benefits come March.
It is hard to predict how good a team will be in July, and there are a lot of question marks on this Ohio State squad, but the potential is sky high. If they can nail down an identity and get the most out of all of these guys, this team can be very, very good. Only time will tell.