On Monday afternoon, Chris Holtmann met with the media for the first time since Malaki Branham announced he was leaving Ohio State for the NBA, and members of the men’s basketball team were available for the first time since the Buckeyes’ second round NCAA Tournament loss to Villanova in Pittsburgh.
The freshmen talked quite a bit about the transition from high school to college and how much more intense practices and conditioning have become. Bruce Thornton, for example was extremely blunt when asked if the older players on the team have helped him in practice and tried to make things easier on him.
“No” he said, with a chuckle.
At the same time, Thornton said he’s learned a lot from players like Isaac Likekele and Sean McNeil, who themselves are new to the Ohio State program. Holtmann echoed this, telling the media later that Likekele and Thornton, “Go at it quite a bit” during practice
Holtmann spoke for about 30 minutes after the players held their availability, touching on everything from NIL to LeBron James to Tanner Holden’s cutting ability. He dispelled a common misconception/judgment about one of his transfers, and also openly spoke on his team’s putrid defense the past two seasons.
It was quite the information dump on Monday afternoon. Here are five things we learned from media day:
Sean McNeil is not just another Justin Ahrens
When Sean McNeil transferred from West Virginia to Ohio State on April 24, fans were quick to google his stats and pronounce him the second coming of Justin Ahrens — the former Buckeye who now plays at Loyola Marymount. However, a quick search shows that McNeil has taken nearly as many two-point shots in his college career as three-pointers.
Over three seasons at West Virginia, McNeil shot 45.1% on 324 two-point attempts. He shot 36.8% on 421 three-point attempts. Comparatively, Ahrens shot 46.7% on 30 two-point attempts over four years, and 39.2% on 360 three-point attempts.
Holtmann has seen or heard these comparisons, and wanted to put the lazy take to bed this afternoon, saying:
“I think sometimes you see that, you immediately kind of look at comparables, maybe to guys that have been here in the past. But Sean’s different. He’s a different player than the guys we’ve had. I think he’s looking to expand part of his game but he also understands his greatest strength is that he has to be guarded almost all over the floor. He does have some ball skills that I think are good. Positionally, defensively he’s good, he has to continue to grow in that area. But he’s got a game that I think is maybe a little bigger than I think maybe what people think. I think most importantly, he’s been a consistent scorer at a terrific program for a couple years in a great league, and that’s going to help us.”
Chris Holtmann has no interest in your pre-season thoughts or your pre-season polls
When asked by a media member about a pre-season Big Ten poll that has the Buckeyes finishing third in the conference, despite considerable roster turnover and several freshmen, Holtmann grinned and more or less dismissed it.
“It’s talking season right? We’re about the work. That’s talk — you can probably look and see a bunch of other ones...I do think people have liked the addition of our transfers, right. And I think (people) are anxious to see what these four freshmen can be. But it’s time to get to work.”
Expect to see a lot of small ball lineups
When asked about the Big Ten being a “conference of big men” and what his philosophy is on guarding a player like Zach Edey when your tallest player is under seven foot, Holtmann reminded those in attendance that there’s only one Zach Edey — that’s not a common occurrence and it poses a unique challenge. He said that in general, many teams are moving towards a more athletic, switchable lineup with four guards around one big and having success with it, and he sees Ohio State doing a lot of that this season.
“I think we are more versatile, we have a number of guys in the middle of what you would say is your lineup — those two, three, four positions that are pretty interchangeable. Their skillsets differ some, but they all can dribble, pass, and shoot to varying degrees and they give us a bit of athleticism there. We have a couple bigger guards — Roddy (Gayle) and Ice (Isaac Likekele) are bigger guards. Obviously Bruce (Thornton) is a man at a young age. But I think that versatility is really critical for us, both defensively and offensively. We do not have the elite scoring of a 19 points per game scorer like E.J. was. We’re hoping some guys can grow, but I think we’ll have to have a mixture of that by some guys across the board.”
You can finally put your reservations about Justice Sueing to bed
Over the past month or so, both Holtmann and Sueing have been repeating over and over that the senior is healthy and feels good and is excited to contribute for one last season at Ohio State. At the former players’ dinner a few weeks ago, Sueing stood at a podium and told all of the former players in attendance that he was feeling good and he was ready to play. Today, he repeated that sentiment at his own media availability, and also said he was especially excited for the Maui Invitational, since his family in Hawaii has not been able to see him play in person much during his five-year college career.
The first question asked to Holtmann during his media availability was also about Sueing, and if he was at 100% now:
“Well the last time we saw Justice was the Akron game, and he wasn’t very good in that particular game. But I think Justice looks great, I mean he looks great. He is healthy, and you know I think he’s a young man who is anxious. He’s anxious to get out there, he’s anxious to be healthy and he really wants to stay healthy. And for a kid like him who had a whole season taken away from him, with the exception of that one game, you really want it for him. He was a really important part of our team that was a two-seed in the NCAA Tournament and had a good year, and he was going to be a really, really important part of last year’s team, so he’ll be a captain and we’re excited about that, and what he’s going to be.”
Defense will be the focus at practice
After registering very good defensive metrics with his first three Ohio State teams, the last two have been very bad, to put it plainly.
KenPom Defensive efficiency rankings, by year:
Holtmann talked about this in depth, and said he feels the athleticism his team gained from the transfer portal and the freshmen class should help moving forward. He acknowledged that even if you’re a great offensive team like Ohio State has more or less been the last three seasons, you have a clear ceiling if you can’t defend on the other end. That will be a point of emphasis as the Buckeyes prepare for Robert Morris coming up in six weeks.
“We have not been good enough defensively the last two years. We just have not. We have not been good enough. I think we have been tremendous offensively, we’ve been really really efficient, numbers will back that up. Two top-15 teams offensively, but we have not been good enough defensively, and we were not good enough on the glass either last year, so you combine those two things and there’s inevitably a ceiling. So I think more athleticism and more versatility, a little more length at the rim were all things we needed to address. Cause certainly you cant have a poor offense, you've got a ceiling if you have a poor offense for sure. That's the reality, just like in college football. In college basketball, you have to be able to score. But we need to have more balance than what our numbers have been. And for three of our five years, we’ve been very good defensively, we just haven’t the last two years.”