2020-21 Ohio State Basketball Preview
The Ohio State men’s basketball team will take the floor next week, hosting Illinois State on Wednesday afternoon, for the first time since a regular season loss at Michigan State in early March prior to the postseason cancellation due to the pandemic. The team will look much different however having lost Andre Wesson and Danny Hummer to graduation, Kaleb Wesson as an NBA early entrant and Luther Muhammad (Arizona State) and Alonzo Gaffney (Northwest Florida) to transfer. In addition, D.J. Carton, who sat out much of the second half of last season due to mental health issues, transferred to Marquette. The cupboard is not bare in Columbus though. Chris Holtmann brings in a trio of freshmen and a pair of transfers along with Musa Jallow, who is regaining health after sitting out the entire 2019-2020 season. The hopes are still high for the Buckeyes in a season of uncertainty in which the coronavirus still runs rampant causing many athletic events to be postponed or cancelled and many, including Buckeye basketball to be played without fans.
On the floor, the Buckeyes return three players with extensive starting experience including the man running the show at the point, C.J. Walker. He will be flanked by the leading returning scorer, Duane Washington and in the post, Kyle Young, who has battled injury throughout his career but is healthy and ready to go. They also return their most impressive freshman from a year ago, E.J. Liddell, who showed flashes of brilliance near the end of the season. While depth in the post may be an issue, the backcourt and the wings look to be explosive and on the attack. The Buckeyes will likely look to push the ball at every opportunity and utilize the transition game to set up their defense, which could employ some zone to offset some of the size issues they will clearly face in most matchups in what looks to be a deep and talented Big Ten conference. As has become a trait for every Chris Holtmann coached team, ball security and defense will be their top priority and athletically this team is as deep as any team in the conference.
Get to know this year’s Buckeyes
The projected starting 5 should look as follows:
C.J. Walker, the 5th year senior will be counted on once again to be a floor general. Walker flirted with the NBA draft but ultimately chose to return to Ohio State. He is coming off a season where he averaged just under 9 points a game and posted a 3-1 assist to turnover ratio. The Buckeyes will absolutely need more from him on both ends. Specifically, they will need Walker provide some additional scoring punch while also creating opportunities for his teammates on the wing.
Duane Washington returns for his junior campaign as the leading returning scorer for the Buckeyes. In 28 games, including 15 starts, he averaged 11.5 points per contest, while drilling over 83% of his free throw attempts. His ability to shoot from beyond the arc as well as put the ball on the floor and create will be even more important for this team this season. He will be needed to shoulder much of the Buckeye scoring load from the wing and I definitely expect that scoring average to jump somewhat significantly despite the fact that teams will now have him high on their scouting report.
Justice Sueing is eligible to play this season after transferring from Cal a year ago and sitting out a season due to transfer rules. He takes the floor this season as a 4th year junior and will man the 3 position for this year’s Buckeyes. In his last season at Cal in 2018-2019, Sueing led the Bears in scoring at a 14.3 clip to go along with 6 rebounds, and will look to make a similar impact for his new school. He boasts a solid 6’7” 215 lb frame and has an ability to get to the rim and finish through contact which will afford him many opportunities at free throw line, where he excels, hitting over 78% in his final year at Cal. Sueing has been compared by Chris Holtmann to former Buckeye Keita Bates-Diop, which is high praise, but in practice a year ago, he turned many heads with his ability to score the basketball and he will be needed to do that for this team.
E.J. Liddell returns for his sophomore season coming off a freshman season that saw him getting more comfortable as the season went along, scoring 17 in a game at Iowa in late February and posting a double-double against Illinois in March with 17 points and 11 rebounds. For the season, Liddell averaged 6.7 points and 3.8 rebounds, playing in all 31 games. He will play the stretch 4 for Chris Holtmann this season and will be looking to add a little more mid-range shooting to his game to open things up for him to penetrate and get the glass. Expect E.J. to be a big part of the game plan on the offensive end as Ohio State looks at times to play through the post.
Kyle Young is back for his senior year and he will be looking to make a big impact on both ends for the Buckeyes. As an undersized center, Young has been referred to as the ‘glue guy’ for this basketball team. In a season marred by injury, Young started 25 games and averaged 7.5 points and 5.8 rebounds, hitting on a team best 58.5% from the field. He will be needed to play the 5 for the majority of his minutes and at just 6’8”, he will be facing a size disadvantage against nearly every opponent in conference play. He will be counted on to bring toughness and energy and be, as Dick Vitale like to say, the Buckeyes ‘Windex Man’, rebounding the basketball at a high rate. Any offense you get from Kyle will be a bonus but he certainly has the ability to put the ball in the basket around the rim by utilizing positioning and creating put-back opportunities.
Seth Towns will make his first appearance in a Buckeye uniform most likely in January as he continues to recover from a knee injury that took his last year and a half prior to his transfer from Harvard. The Northland High School product was a highly sought after graduate transfer this past off-season and chose to play for his hometown Buckeyes. A former Ivy League player of the year, Seth has the length to defend the wing or the post with his 6’8”, 230 lb frame. He possesses a quick first step and a smooth jumper and can score from anywhere on the floor. He will provide scoring punch off the bench and very possibly be in the starting lineup before the season is over. As a sophomore at Harvard, Seth was an honorable mention All American, leading the Crimson with 16 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game and as a freshman averaged over 12 points per game.
Jimmy Sotos is another transfer who was granted immediate eligibility after coming over from Bucknell, where he was the starting point guard a year ago and led the Bison with an 11.5 point and 3.9 assist average per ballgame. Jimmy is a leader on the floor and will be asked to provide a similar role off the bench for the Buckeyes. He will spell Walker at the point and add much needed backcourt depth.
Justin Ahrens is the microwave off the bench for the Buckeyes and will be looking to take the next step this season as a junior. A lights out shooter, Justin has struggled at times on the defensive end, costing him minutes. Now that he has a couple years experience, he will be looking to take his game to the next level. As he as demonstrated at times, he can be a big time offensive weapon that teams have to be aware of, which can open up the floor for his teammates to attack the glass. If he can make the adjustments needed, he will prove to be a valuable bench piece for this year’s team.
Zed Key is another newcomer to the Buckeye roster. A freshman from Bay Shore, New York, Key possesses a big 6’8” 245 pound frame that comes in physically ready to play in the Big Ten. As a senior at Long Island Lutheran High School, Key led his team with 18 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. Key signed with the Buckeyes as a 4 star prospect and will provide much needed post depth and is certain to get a lot of floor time backing up Kyle Young and E.J. Liddell. Blessed with a 7 foot wingspan, Key has an ability to be very disruptive in the lane defensively with a nice little jump hook on the offensive end.
Musa Jallow returns from an ankle injury that cost him the entire season a year ago. In his sophomore campaign, Musa played in all 35 games, starting 13 and averaged just under 3 points and 3 rebounds per game and showed flashes of becoming the player Chris Holtmann and his staff anticipated when they brought the heralded prospect in from Bloomington, Indiana. An Academic All Conference player the past two seasons, Musa gives Ohio State wing depth, athleticism and length on the perimeter. He has an ability to put it on the floor and if he can develop a consistent jump shot, Musa could be a big contributor for Ohio State this season.
Eugene Brown III enters his freshman season at Ohio State as a big wing with the handle to play at the top at times. He can shoot it well off the bounce and provides depth and versatility off the bench for Ohio State. A 3 star prospect out of Dekalb, Georgia, Brown averaged 17 points and 9 rebounds as a senior.
Ibrahima Diallo is back for his sophomore season and is the tallest player on the roster, standing at 6’10”. Diallo played sparingly a year ago, appearing in only 8 games but possesses a high upside as he has only played organized basketball for 4 years after moving to the United States from Senegal. He is very athletic for a guy his size and has a chance to add value for this team on the defensive end in the paint.
Meechie Johnson will join the Buckeyes in December, reclassifying to the 2020 class after becoming a top player in the state of Ohio out of Cleveland’s Garfield Heights High School. Due to the pandemic, he will get a free year and remain a freshman next season, so it seemed like a no brainer for him. A four star prospect, Johnson, has a quick first step and an outstanding motor. He will add much needed depth at the point guard position and use this season to learn from C.J. Walker and be ready to take the reins next season. The future is certainly bright at the point with Meechie running the show.
Harrison Hookfin is the lone walk on for this year’s team. A junior out of Lebanon, Ohio, Hookfin played in just 8 games a year ago, logging 21 minutes. He was academic All Big Ten a year ago and an OSU Scholar athlete.
The Buckeyes feature many new faces this year with only 5 returners seeing significant minutes a year ago. Having said that, with 3 transfers that have had success and starting experience coming in, the team is much older than in year’s past. The key will be how quickly they mesh together as a unit and buy into Chris Holtmann’s system. They should have a myriad of scoring options, especially from the wing, however their depth and lack of size in the post will be a challenge in a conference that boasts some talented bigs. Expect Ohio State to utilize their perimeter length to create offense from defense and run at every opportunity. While they may lack some depth inside, they should play a fun, explosive style of basketball that will most definitely be fun to watch.
Most publications have Ohio State ranked somewhere in the back 1/3 of the top 25. While the Big Ten is deep and talented, having 4 teams ranked in the preseason AP Top 25, Ohio State is not far behind, coming in at #23 and should challenge for a top 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. In Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology, Ohio State is listed as a 4 seed, playing Vermont in the opening round. Time will tell if that’s accurate, but it illustrates how the national media views this version of the Buckeyes, and for now, it’s very favorable. This season has a lot of uncertainty not only nationally, but also at a micro level for Ohio State as well with so many new pieces. Predicting how the Big Ten will finish is difficult because nobody knows how the pandemic will affect the season but for now, we will assume the season is played without interruption. I see the top half of the Big Ten shaking out like this:
#1 Illinois (returning 4 starters, including 2 preseason All Big Ten players, G Ayo Dosunmu and C Kofi Cockburn)
#2 Michigan State (returning 4 starters, including 2 preseason second Team All Big ten players, guards Rocket Watts and Aaron Henry)
#3 Wisconsin (3 players picked as preseason All Big Ten, G Dmitrik Trice 2nd team, C Nate Reuvers and F Micah Potter 3rd team)
#4 Iowa (Returns the reigning conference Player of the Year C Luka Garza along with preseason 1st Team All Big Ten F Joe Wieskamp)
#5 Ohio State (Many new faces but boasts Cal’s leading scorer from 2 years ago, F Justice Sueing and Bucknell’s leading scorer last season, G Jimmy Sotos along with 3 returning starters)
#6 Rutgers (3rd team All Big Ten G Geo Baker returns in addition to G Ron Harper Jr)
#7 Michigan (Returns 2 preseason 3rd team All conference players, G Franz Wagner and F Isiah Livers)
No matter how this season transpires, it will be one to be remembered for sure. Let’s just hope it’s remembered for what happens on the court, and not what could happen off. It all starts for the Buckeyes next week.