2019-20 Ohio State Basketball Season Preview
With all the excitement around Columbus directed toward the top 5 ranked football Buckeyes and rightly so, the 2019-20 version of the basketball Buckeyes take the floor for their first public appearance next week, facing Cedarville in an exhibition on October 30th, before opening the season at home on November 6th, hosting Cincinnati at the Schott. Year 3 of the Chris Holtmann era opens with more expectations than in his prior 2 years, despite making the NCAA tournament round of 32 in both years. This year, he returns a lot of experience, although young experience, along with a freshman class that ranks among the nation’s best. The so-called college basketball experts have taken notice, ranking them in preseason magazines as high as top 10, but generally sitting somewhere in the top 15. In the recently released Associated Press poll, the Buckeyes open at #18, which is the first time Ohio State sees their name among the country’s elite in the Chris Holtmann era.
Before breaking down this year’s roster, it’s important to take a look at the pre-conference schedule, which is quite aggressive and challenging but will prepare them well for the NCAA tournament. It will also enable them to get some tournament resume boosting wins if they are able to come away victorious. The opener at home against Cincinnati will have the rivalry type feel, although the Bearcats are not quite as strong as they have been and going through a coaching change, the ‘Cats sit just outside the Top 25. Other than that game which presents a unique challenge, the Buckeyes face 3 preseason top 10 teams in the first part of the season. The first of which will be 10th ranked Villanova, who comes to Columbus on November 13th as part of the Gavitt Games which pairs the Big Ten and Big East. Jay Wright will bring in a team only a couple of years removed from a national championship and will be a big time measuring stick for Chris Holtmann’s guys. December brings more challenges, starting with a December 4th trip to Chapel Hill to face off with the 9th ranked North Carolina Tarheels in the Big Ten/ACC challenge and a nice early Christmas present on the 21st as the Buckeyes will travel to Las Vegas to play for the 6th straight season in the CBS Sports Classic. This time they will face off with 2nd ranked Kentucky. Finally, after Christmas they will head up to Cleveland to play Bob Huggins’s West Virginia Mountaineers on the 29th. The pre Big Ten schedule is tough, but we will find out a lot about this team very early before playing in the always-challenging Big Ten.
The Buckeyes, while relatively young in age, have a wealth of returners from a year ago, including 4 of the 5 primary starters. They will be tasked at replacing the leadership of guard C.J. Jackson as well as Keyshawn Woods, who combined to account for 46% of the team’s assist totals. However, they return 66% of the scoring and 75% of the rebounding from a team a year ago that advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Look for the Buckeyes to play two forwards often with the lack of a true 5, but with the newcomers, Ohio State will have improved length on the perimeter and guys who can create off the bounce and play in tight spaces. With that, we look at how the roster will shake out this year.
Andre Wesson – Andre is the lone senior on this year’s roster and has improved each year in the program. As the lone holdover from the final Thad Matta team, Andre provides leadership and an ability to guard both the perimeter and the post with his length and athleticism. He increased his scoring average to 8.6 per game a year ago and will look to build on that average with an improving jump shot. As Chris Holtmann pointed out recently, Wesson has been best on the team from long range in the preseason. Andre won’t necessarily need to be counted on as a top scoring option for this team, but will need to be consistent on both ends for this team to have the success that they are hoping for.
Kaleb Wesson – Kaleb is back for his junior year after testing the NBA waters in the offseason and is critical to the success of this year’s team. Wesson is one of a pair of players in the Big Ten who was named unanimous preseason All Big Ten and he comes into this season stronger and leaner after a rigorous offseason training program has transformed his body. The Buckeyes leading scorer and rebounder last season will need to spend more time on the floor and less time sitting next to the coaching staff due to foul trouble. Being in better condition will help him play with more bounce that will help put him in better position defensively to keep from committing fouls by beating his man to the spot and not reaching as often. Offensively, he will score most of his points in and around the paint and although he will never be considered a stretch 4 type player, the added quickness and improved jump shot should help him pull the defenders out on the floor and utilize the bounce to get by them at times. Because of the lack of depth in the post, Kaleb needs to average 25-30 productive minutes per game for the Buckeyes to reach their ceiling.
Kyle Young – Kyle is now in his third year in the program and will be counted on for a key role this season. After struggling with injury a year ago, Kyle looks to bounce back with a big role in the paint. Coach Holtmann and his staff will need Kyle in and around the bucket to rebound and score when he is in position. He will likely either start at the 4, or be the first big man off the bench and spell Kaleb Wesson at the 5 at times. Young’s biggest contribution to this year’s team may be his ability to stay connected defensively and do the dirty work on the glass to limit opponent’s offensive chances. The Buckeyes need a healthy Kyle Young to add versatility and depth to a thin front line.
Musa Jallow – Musa enters his junior year dealing with an injury that will keep him out for the beginning of the season. When he is on the floor, Jallow is a unique athlete that is athletic as any player on the team. He had moments last season where he really shined shooting the basketball but he really made an impact defensively with his athleticism and length. For him to really blossom on the offensive end, he needs to find more consistency with his jump shot so that defenders will respect it and open things up for him to attack the rim. His status for the season is up in the air and how much he contributes will be how quickly he gets up to speed when he is cleared medically and a redshirt season is not totally off the table at this point. When healthy, he is a high-energy guy with a high ceiling and can help the team on both ends of the floor.
Luther Muhammad/Duane Washington – As major contributors last season as freshmen, Muhammad and Washington will look to take steps in learning from the ups and downs of their freshman campaigns. Their growth may be as important as anything with the team this season. Muhammad spent the majority of the season starting at the 2 next to C.J. Jackson a year ago and was counted on primarily as a defensive stopper, guarding the best backcourt player of nearly every opponent and that likely won’t change this year. Muhammad also showed an ability to put the ball on the deck and get to the rim but will need opponents to respect his jump shot, which was erratic, especially in the back half of the season last year. If he can improve in that area, he will find driving lanes easier to come by and keep him on the attack offensively. Washington was explosive off the bench last season and at times was a real threat to score the basketball. He went through the difficulties that most freshman go through but really showed flashes of being dynamic offensively. He needs to improve on the defensive end, but that is something that he understands more and more as he enters his second year in the program. Both players will play key roles and be counted on for big minutes this season.
Justin Ahrens – Ahrens is coming off a Freshman year where he saw limited action, averaging just 9.6 minutes in 25 games, but had one memorable game in particular when he exploded for 29 points against Iowa in February, including 6 triples. Justin fought a back injury a year ago and it continued into the summer and limited him early in the preseason. He is a bit of a liability at this point of his career on the defensive end, but he can provide instant offense off the bench with his ability to shoot the ball from deep and will likely fill that ‘microwave’ role once again this season.
C.J. Walker – A transfer from Florida State, C.J. Walker led the Seminoles as a Sophomore to the Elite Eight, averaging 8 points and 2.5 assists as a multi talented point guard. He spent last season running the Buckeye scout team so he enters the season with a good feel for the Buckeye offense. He brings an outstanding handle and a tough-minded approach. Walker is the true point guard this team has lacked the past few seasons, which will help the bigs, namely Kaleb Wesson get the basketball in a position to score. Walker is a true pass first point guard that can break down a defense with dribble drive penetration and drop the ball to the post or kick it to shooters on the perimeter. Additionally, his ability to draw defenders should help Wesson from having to work so hard to get position which sometimes caused him to commit offensive fouls simply by trying to create space. According to Coach Holtmann, Walker is someone that plays with great pace and is that ‘coach’ on the floor that every coach loves. Look for Walker to start at the 1 at least initially to start the season and be key to keeping the Buckeye offense under control and on schedule.
Freshman Class (D.J. Carton, E.J. Liddell, Alonzo Gaffney, Ibrahima Diallo) – A highly regarded class ranked in the top 10 by most recruiting publications, headlined by Mr. Basketball award winners in Iowa and Illinois and 3 Top 100 recruits. The headliner is Iowa Mr. Basketball, combo guard D.J. Carton. Voted by the Big Ten media as it’s preseason freshman of the year, Carton steps into college basketball the most ready of the group to compete at this level. He is a complete offensive player with a great handle and superior court vision. At 6’1 195 lbs and a 6-6 wingspan, Carton has all the physical attributes and the game to back it up. He will play big minutes as a freshman and will likely crack the starting lineup sooner rather than later. He will likely handle the point while he’s on the floor, but don’t be surprised to see him and Walker on the floor together some to create some offensive mismatches. If Carton is the headliner, Illinois Mr. Basketball E.J. Liddell isn’t far behind. At 6’7”, 230 lbs, E.J. will often play the 4 but can also play a lengthy 3. Liddell has an uncanny ability to stretch the floor with his smooth jumper combined with an explosiveness to get to the rim off the bounce and elevate like nobody else on the basketball team. He will likely step right into the starting lineup and provide the Buckeyes a top scoring option out of the gate. The third member of the class is PF Alonzo Gaffney from Garfield Heights, via Brewster Academy. Standing at 6’8” and weighing in at just shy of 200 lbs, he has some work to do on his body to be a true power forward in the Big Ten, but at his size, he adds length and great body control and athleticism for his position. Gaffney has an opportunity to add depth at the thinnest position on the team and should get meaningful minutes early in the year and an opportunity to prove he belongs. The final member of the 2019 recruiting class is 6’10” center, Ibrahima Diallo. Diallo, a native of Senegal, played his prep ball in Napa, CA and is a bit raw developmentally. He is athletic and agile and can get off the floor in a hurry and at his size can be a disruptive presence on the defensive end. Having only played organized basketball for a few years, his ceiling is high and could contribute in spot minutes at the 5, providing a shot blocking presence in the paint. Depending on how he develops and how quickly he picks up the college game will determine how much meaningful floor time he will get.
The Buckeyes also add transfer Justice Sueing, a Cal transfer who led the Bears in scoring a year ago at a 14.3 per game clip. Standing at 6’6” and 210 lbs, Sueing will has to sit out this season due to transfer rules but will provide practice depth and have a year learning the system as he prepares to be a major contributor next season. Additionally, walk-ons, Danny Hummer and Harrison Hookfin return for another season in Scarlet and Gray.
The Buckeyes have length and more depth than any time in the Chris Holtmann era. While still a bit thin in the post, they more than make up for it by playmakers on the perimeter. The addition of a pair of true point guards will also enable the coaching staff to get into their sets much quicker and be able to control the pace much more consistently. The Buckeyes will once again lean on Kaleb Wesson to provide a major scoring load, but they seem to have more options than in years past, which should serve them well. Recently the Buckeyes played in a closed scrimmage at 5th ranked Louisville and came away victorious with Wesson leading the way in the scoring column. They didn’t come out of the game unscathed however. D.J. Carton suffered a sprained ankle early in the contest and didn’t play much but should be ready for the opener. For now, the Buckeyes focus on the day to day and try not to pay attention to the accolades that are being placed on them in the preseason. As Coach Holtmann has said, “We’ll get what we earn” and they will have the opportunity to earn their first win in the Schott on November 6th against the Bearcats.
Big Ten Predictions
The Big Ten isn’t as deep as it has been in past seasons, at least on paper. However, it is very strong at the top, led by preseason #1 in the country Michigan State. Returning the preseason Big Ten player of the year in PG Cassius Winston, the Spartans are coming off a Big Ten title and trip to the Final Four. After the Spartans, the Big Ten has two more ranked teams in addition to the Buckeyes. Maryland headlines that group, sitting at #7 in the preseason poll and along with the 18th ranked Buckeyes, Purdue checks in at #24. The conference may not be quite as deep as in past seasons, but there are the ingredients for one or two conference teams to make a deep run in March.
There is a clear delineation at the top of the conference and that’s where our focus will be as we take a stab at predicting the top 5 in what will likely be very competitive as it usually is. After the clear cut top 3 or 4, there is a glut of teams that will compete for a top half of the conference finish. With that, here are my projected top 5:
1. Michigan State – Key Returners: Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford, Xavier Tillman, Aaron Henry Key Additions: Malik Hall, Rocket Watts (incoming top 40 guard)
2. Maryland – Key Returners: Jalen Smith, Aaron Wiggins, Anthony Cowan
Key Additions: Donta Scott, Makhi Mitchell
3. Ohio State – Key Returners: Kaleb Wesson, Andre Wesson, Luther Muhammad
Key Additions: C.J. Walker (Florida State Transfer), D.J. Carton, E.J. Liddell
4. Purdue – Key Returners: Nojel Eastern, Aaron Wheeler, Matt Haarms
Key Additions: Jahhad Proctor (High Point Transfer), Brandon Newman
5. Illinois – Key Returners: Trent Frazier, Ayo Dosunumu, Giorgi Bezhanshvili, Andre Feliz
Key Additions: Kofi Cockburn (Top 50 recruit at center)
The Buckeyes should most definitely be right in the thick of the title hunt and having to play the Spartans only one time, although in East Lansing, will certainly help. However as usual, the Big Ten and its 20 game slate, will be present its fair share of challenges. If the Buckeyes are able to navigate conference play with success, they will be aligned well to be a top 5 seed in the NCAA tournament in March. Right now, I see Michigan State as a 1 seed, with Maryland and Ohio State battling for a 4 or 5 seed and Purdue sitting at a 7. Illinois could likely sneak into the tournament as a 9 or 10 and there is potential for another conference team or two to rise up and surprise. Enjoy the ride Buckeye fans, it should be a fun season of college basketball tipping off in just a couple weeks. I issue a challenge to all Buckeye fans to support the basketball team from the jump and fill the Schott in November. There is room in this town to be excited for both football and basketball at the same time so don’t be late to the party because this season could shape up to be a very special one.
– Jason Harris