Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.
In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.
This week’s topic: Way-too-early level of concern for OSU men’s basketball
Just two games into the 2023-24 season, the Ohio State men’s basketball team sits at an even 1-1, with the loss coming courtesy of No. 15 Texas A&M in a back and forth affair. Sure, the loss occurred at home, but OSU has not exactly enjoyed a Duke-like home court advantage in recent years. Or since the university moved teams from St. John Arena to a crappy concert venue, but that is neither here nor there...
Regardless, A&M will be a tournament team and likely flirt with a top-10 ranking at some point during the season. So no shame in dropping a close one to a well-coached team with a bunch of juniors and seniors. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with the Buckeyes’ start.
But beneath the surface, there is already some leg kicking and struggling go on, as Chris Holtmann’s squad attempts to find shallow water. Which is my fancy way of saying that the warning signs are there, folks. The same warning signs that have smacked us in the face for years: Lack of ball movement and/or creativity on offense, poor shooting, and trouble rebounding, among others.
Now, I might be overreacting here. After all, we are only two games into the season. But that is why I asked Gene to take this journey with me. I wanted him to potentially be the yin to my yang and talk me off this scary ledge. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. But we are going to ‘debate’ either way. So without further ado, these are our early and respective levels of concern for Ohio State men’s basketball.
I don’t want to sound too pessimistic or ‘hot takey’ here, but I will start by saying that my concern level for these Buckeyes is a 12 out of 10. Because to me, this essentially looks like last year’s squad that went 16-19 and finished 13th in the Big Ten during the regular season. Except Brice Sensabaugh has been replaced by Jamison Battle, while the rest of the new pieces are lesser versions of Justice Sueing and Sean McNeil. Right now, that is.
Make no mistake, I love the upside(s) of Scotty Middleton, Devin Royal, and Taison Chatman. I really do. But Sueing and McNeil had a decade of college basketball experience between them. And while limited in certain aspects of the game, Sueing could still do a little bit of everything. McNeil was a borderline elite shooter.
So far, we’ve seen one good game and one bad game from Middleton, very little from Royal, and nothing from Chatman (due to injury). There is just no guarantee that the young guys will replace 22 points, 7 boards, and 3 assists per game, which is what you were getting consistently from Sueing and McNeil.
So then who are the vets supposedly helping out Bruce Thornton, Roddy Gayle, and Zed Key? Battle, Evan Mahaffey, and Dale Bonner? I’m holding out hope for 15 and 5 from Battle, but the other two appear to be different versions of Ice Likekele: No offense, little bit of defense. Sick. Exactly what a team with no identity needs.
That last point is what really bothers me about recent Holtmann teams. What is their identity? What do they do well? Lately, the answer has been “Well nothing, really.” They’ve had no real firepower on offense. If E.J. Liddell, Malaki Branham, or Sensabaugh wasn’t going off, the backup plan seemed to be hoping and praying for 20-25 seconds. The defense has been ok at times, but never stifling. Never something OSU could rely on to win games. And those are just the blatantly obvious things that jump out; scoring and stopping the opponent from doing so.
The other parts of the game haven't been great, either. The Buckeyes still can’t shoot. They are 11-of-44 from three and 34-of-47 from the line thus far in ‘23-24. They don’t share the ball well. As a team, Ohio State is dishing out 12.5 assists per game, however, 5.5 of those belong to Gayle. So if you take away the team’s starting shooting guard, OSU is averaging seven freaking assists per game! If you take away both Gayle and Thornton, well then Holtmann’s squad basically doesn’t pass the ball. And don’t get me started on rebounding! I mean, the team's starting center has four boards in two games.
I do give the Buckeyes credit for coming back against Oakland and hanging tough with A&M. And Thornton/Gayle/Zed Key have all played fairly well... But Ohio State has not looked like a good basketball team. It is the will and desire of those three players that has even salvaged a few respectable results. While I really like a handful of the individual pieces, I’m just not sure that Holtmann can coach this group (that he put together) to a 20-win season. I hope I am proven wrong, but these first two games have reminded me of the movie Groundhog Day. So again, I am at a 12/10 on the concern scale.
In a rare twist of fate, I will choose to take the more optimistic route in this edition of You’re Nuts, and say that I’m at around a 4/10 level of concern after two games for this year’s group of men’s basketball Buckeyes.
Now, that is not to say that I don't recognize a less-than-ideal start for this Ohio State team. Chris Holtmann’s group struggled against Oakland in the opener, but did come away with a six-point victory. The Grizzlies aren’t world beaters, but they aren’t that awful either, as they lost their next game but kept things close in a 64-53 content against Illinois that was just a one-point game at the half. A loss to a top-15 team in Texas A&M doesn’t really move the needle either, especially considering all five of the Aggies’ top scorers this season are upperclassmen.
However, a look at the statistical rankings — again, it has just been two games — paints the picture of an incredibly slow start to the new campaign for Ohio State. Offensively, the Buckeyes rank 233rd of 363 teams in points per game (72.5) and 146th in offensive rating, a measure of the estimated points scored per 100 possessions (110.7). Defensive things have not been much better, ranking 224th in points allowed per game (73) and 307th in defensive rating (111.5). Again, it is just two games, but being in or near the bottom third in the country in three of four team-based statistics is a tough look.
That being said, these types of early-season struggles are to be expected when basically your entire roster is made up of underclassmen. All but three players (Zed Key, Jamison Battle and Dale Bonner) that have logged minutes for Ohio State through two games are either freshmen or sophomores, with both of the team’s two leading scorers (Bruce Thornton and Roddy Gayle) being second-year guys. They are going to need more from their veterans like Battle and Key, but its tough to expect a largely young team to be firing on all cylinders right out of the gate.
They are also expecting more — and I think we will see a lot more — from this current freshman class that ranked 12th nationally and third in the Big Ten. Scotty Middleton, one of three four-star signees, was strong in the opener against Oakland, shooting 4-of-7 with 13 points and eight boards, but went just 1-of-5 with two points in 16 minutes against Texas A&M. Ohio State has yet to see Taison Chatman, their top-rated recruit in the 2023 class, as the No. 1 player out of Minnesota has missed the first two games of the season with injury, as well as 6-foot-10 center Austin Parks. Devin Royal, the fourth member of the class, has played sparingly off the bench and has attempted just one shot.
So, for me, I think this incredibly young Ohio State team has a ton of potential, and basically everyone on the roster from the veterans to the first-year guys is capable of playing far better than they are right now. I am definitely concerned that many of the same issues that have plagued prior Chris Holtmann teams continue to show up this season, including stretches of poor shooting and rebounding issues, but even still I think this team has a higher ceiling that year’s past.
Could I be wrong and we are in store for another poor season from the men’s squad if things don't start clicking? Absolutely, but I’m willing to hold out hope and not completely lose faith in this team after just two games.