2021-22 Ohio State Basketball Season Preview
Don’t look now but the 123rd version of the Ohio State men’s basketball team is just a few short weeks away from tipping off the 21-22 season. Last year’s first round exit in the NCAA tournament to the hands of Oral Roberts is far behind them, but make no mistake it is a motivator. Although several of the players on the current roster either weren’t on the roster or didn’t play in that game, the players that did play, while not dwelling on it, it does drive them. Coach Chris Holtmann said as much, however they are putting that game in the rearview and moving forward with a team that on paper has a chance to be extremely good. While the challenge of replacing the entire starting backcourt (C.J. Walker and Duane Washington JR, who were major contributors a year ago) is daunting, the Buckeyes are a veteran group with a roster made up of 9 scholarship players in their 3rd, 4th, 5th and in the case of Indiana transfer Joey Brunk, 6th year of college basketball. It’s a brand new world in college athletics with the implementation of the transfer portal so more teams are becoming older with additions from the portal and Ohio State has utilized the portal to great success in recent years. Chris Holtmann was asked about this year’s roster and while he is excited, health is going to be extremely important. A year ago, they had a somewhat older group, but injuries mounted late which hurt their depth. He also eluded as to how he expects to handle the veteran depth and he said he and the staff plans to do that through role definition and it will be key to develop team chemistry, but there is great value to the guys who have gone through the battles of the Big Ten.
The Buckeyes will find out who they are before the calendar flips to 2022. “This will be the most challenging non-conference schedule in my coaching career” Holtmann said, “We are going to find out how tough we are early.” The Buckeyes will be tested early with a trip to Xavier to take on the Musketeers on November 18th and that is followed by a trip to Fort Myers for the Fort Myers tip off to play Seton Hall and then either Florida or Cal. Following that trip, they head back home to take on Duke in the ‘Coach K Farewell Tour’ as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. After a pair of early Big Ten games and a game against mid major Towson, They head to Las Vegas to play in the CBS Sports classic for the 8th consecutive year to play the Kentucky Wildcats. While it is an aggressive non-conference slate, the Buckeyes will have several opportunities to not only improve and set themselves up to be battle tested heading into what is the deepest and most talented conference in the country, they have a great opportunity to build their resume for the NCAA tournament. With the talent they are returning, expectations for Team 123 is high, but as Holtmann said “we have been in the top 20 every year and a couple times ranked in the top 10, expectations are embraced, but we need to focus on the day to day and stay in and enjoy the moment.”
*Note: This is a projection for now and will likely vary throughout the year as the staff finds stability on the floor.
PG – Jamari Wheeler
Jamari, a Penn State transfer is entering his 5th year of college basketball. He played in 127 games in his four years in State College, where he was named to the Big Ten All Defensive Team in the past two seasons, leading the conference in steals in both years. Coach Holtmann called him “an every day guy, a competitor who brings juice to practice” He is a defense first guy, who is a true facilitator and brings a level of toughness and aggressiveness to the top of the defense.
SG – Malaki Branham
Malaki enters Ohio State as a highly touted recruit from Akron SVSM High School and was named Mr. Basketball in Ohio. He was part of HS teams that won two state titles, including his senior year, when he led the Irish with 37 points in the title game. At 6’4”, he possesses good size, has a good handle and can get to the rim with regularity. With his size, he can rebound from the 2 spot at a high level and can guard multiple positions. While just a freshman, he will have his ups and downs and will continue to get better as the season progresses.
SF – Justice Sueing (Captain)
Justice is in his third year in the program and second on the floor after sitting out a year when he transferred from Cal. After scoring 886 points at Cal, he surpassed 1,000 for his career in his junior season at Ohio State. He is coming off a season where he averaged 10.7 points and 5.5 rebounds and will be asked to pick up some of the scoring load that was lost when Duane Washington, Jr left for the NBA. He is a true slasher from the 3 spot and can defend and rebound at a high level with his 6’7” size and length. As one of four captains, Justice will not only fill the stat sheet, he will be asked to be a leader on and off the floor.
PF – E.J. Liddell (Captain)
E.J. is a true star in college basketball for the 21-22 season. Coming off a first team All Big Ten Sophomore season, he is showing up on many preseason All American lists and appears on the Wooden Award watch list for National Player of the Year. A year ago, E.J. averaged 16.2 points per game to go along with 6.7 rebounds playing at his more natural 4 position but also was asked to play the 5 and defend the opponent’s center at times. This season, with more depth in the post, he will play almost exclusively at the 4 and utilize his length to stretch the floor with his improved shooting ability from the wing. Another one of the four captains, E.J. is poised to have a big year, improve upon his scoring numbers and lead the Buckeyes in their attempt to win a Big Ten championship.
C – Kyle Young (Captain)
Named as a captain for his ‘Super’ Senior year, Kyle returned for a 5th year thanks to COVID rules put in place by the NCAA to allow for a ‘free’ eligibility year and Coach Holtmann and the staff could not be happier. Kyle is a guy who provides toughness and is willing to do the little things to help his team win. Playing through injury the last two seasons, he has managed to improve every year in the program and is a key piece to this year’s basketball team. As a veteran of 108 games, Kyle is the most experienced member of Team 123. A 3 time All Academic Big Ten honoree, Kyle is a very intelligent player in addition to the toughness he provides. He is a physical presence in the paint, a great rebounder and very good scorer around the rim. In addition to his play on the block, he has developed a jump shot that makes him very difficult to defend.
G – Meechie Johnson
Meechie is entering his first full season as a Buckeye after enrolling at Ohio State in December. Due to the COVID rules, he will retain his freshman season and have four season of eligibility remaining at Ohio State. As a highly rated recruit out of Garfield Heights High School in Cleveland, Meechie made an impact in his limited floor time last season, showing off his tremendous handle, quickness and perimeter shooting ability. Having a full offseason in the program and the experience gained from enrolling early, Meechie will look to have a bigger impact this season, especially with the questions in the backcourt. He will be a key piece to run the point and hit open shots to provide a spark off the bench on this year’s team.
PF/C – Zed Key
Zed entered Ohio State as a high profile recruit from New York and immediately made his presence known in the paint. He is a big bodied, strong and physical presence in the post for the Buckeyes. Zed will once again play significant minutes at the 5. In his first season, Zed averaged 5.2 points and 3.4 rebounds, impacting the game more on the defensive end and his ability to rebound the basketball. As he develops, learns and grasps defensive positioning a bit better in his sophomore season, look for Zed to significantly increase minutes on the floor, which will be needed for post depth on this team. The Buckeyes will count on him to be most impactful on the defensive end, guarding the opponent’s center and providing a lift on the glass, while any scoring he adds will be icing on the cake.
SF – Justin Ahrens (Captain)
The final captain for Team 123, Justin is entering his senior season and is the unquestioned best shooter on the roster. A true spot up shooter, Ahrens knocked down triples at a 42.5% rate a year ago, hitting on 54 of his 127 attempts, while only attempting seven shots from inside the arc all season. A veteran of 82 games, Justin will be counted on for scoring punch off the bench and his minutes will be determined by how well he improves on the other end. As a defender, he continues to progress but still finds his minutes limited due to defensive matchups with the opponent. He could find himself in the starting lineup at times, but he will most likely be utilized as a ‘microwave’ off the bench, coming in the game to stretch the floor, knock down shots, and open things up in the middle for his teammates.
F – Seth Towns
Seth enters his 5th year senior season and second at Ohio State. A native of Columbus and former Honorable Mention All American at Harvard, Seth has been battling a knee injury the majority of the past 3 years. While the knee is as healthy as it’s been in years entering 2021-22, he unfortunately was bit by the injury bug once again, having microdisectomy surgery to correct a herniated a disc in his back. As a result, Seth will not be available for the first month of the season. When he is on the floor, Seth is one of the smartest players in college basketball. Possessing a 6’8” solid frame, Seth has the length to stretch defenses with his silky smooth stroke from 15 feet. While he’s not as quick as he once was, he still has a good handle for his size and can put the ball on the deck and get to and finish at the rim. He will provide depth at the wing and an ability to provide a scoring punch off the bench.
C- Joey Brunk
Another newcomer to the roster, Joey spent his first three years at Butler, where he spent his freshman season playing for Chris Holtmann. In two seasons at Butler, Joey played in 60 games averaging just under 5 points and 5 rebounds. As a redshirt junior in 2019-20, Brunk played at Indiana, playing in all 32 games, starting 31 where he averaged 7 points and 6 rebounds. He had back surgery last December, costing him his RS senior year at IU and transferred to Ohio State this past summer. He will provide much needed and experienced depth in the post for Ohio State. Possessing a big body and a defensive first mindset, he will be relied upon to defend opponent’s bigs and provide a lift in the middle of the paint. He can add scoring around the rim and will be an asset for this team on both the offensive and defensive glass.
G – Eugene Brown III
Gene is entering his sophomore year, enrolling at Ohio State a year ago after a highly decorated career at Southwest DeKalb High School in Decatur, Georgia. He possesses good size at the 2-guard position and can defend the 2 or the 3 with his strength, quickness and length. In his true freshman year last season, Gene showed flashes of the player he could be, showing that he has an ability to shoot from the perimeter and defend at a high level. He will be important to this year’s Buckeyes, adding depth at the wing off the bench and adding scoring and rebounding from the wing.
G – Jimmy Sotos
Jimmy transferred to Ohio State last year from Bucknell, where he led the Bison in scoring, assists and steals in 2019-20. He played in just 12 games with the Buckeyes last season, starting the last two while C.J. Walker was out with injury, before being injured himself, separating his shoulder requiring surgery that ended his season. . In his limited time a year ago, Jimmy showed the ability to knock down shots from beyond the arc and pass the basketball at a high level. A veteran of 112 college games, Jimmy will provide veteran leadership and depth in the backcourt and give the coaching staff the luxury of three true point guards on the roster.
G – Cedric Russell
Cedric enters his first and only season at Ohio State as a graduate transfer from Louisiana. Last season with the Rajin’ Cajuns, he was among the nation’s best from beyond the arc, hitting on 76 of his 190 attempts, good for a 40% clip. Playing in 124 games over his Louisiana career, he averaged 11.4 points per game, which included a 17.2 point per game average last season, which included a first team All-Sun Belt honor. The early take on Russell as a Buckeye, Coach Holtmann said of Cedric that “he is finding his way” and that “moving up a level is a process.” It will be a bit of a learning arc for him as he feels his way through life at a major program, but he can provide a scoring lift off the bench and an ability to open the floor with his shooting prowess.
F – Kalen Etzler (21-22 Redshirt)
Kalen enters Ohio State as a highly ranked recruit from Crestview, Ohio. It was announced recently that he will redshirt this season in order to learn the college game and add strength to his 6’8” 200 lb frame. In High School, Kalen averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds per game, earning second team All-Ohio. By redshirting, he will be able to learn the game and be ready to make a big impact next season with Ohio State poised to have some major roster turnover after this season.
Walk On: Harrison Hookfin
Hookfin is entering his third year as a walk on in the program and a 2021 Academic All-Big Ten honoree. He appeared in 8 games a year ago, scoring two points in addition to five rebounds.
Big Ten Projections
For this article, we’ll focus on just my projected top 5 finish for the conference. While the top of the conference is extremely strong, there are several programs in full rebuild mode, whether it be due to coaching change or major roster turnover for perennial contenders, as in the case of Iowa and Wisconsin.
1. Purdue – Returning one of the most veteran rosters in college basketball and ranked in the top 10 by every major publication.
Key Players: All 5 starters return including AA candidate Trevion Williams in addition to preseason All-Big Ten candidate Jaden Ivey. Also returning is Eric Hunter, Brandon Newman, Sasha Sefanovic and 7’4” Zach Edey.
2. Michigan – Another top 10 ranked team in the preseason, Michigan returns key contributors and also adds a top 5 recruiting class. Despite the losses of 43 points and 18 rebounds per game thanks to the departures of Chaundee Brown, Isaiah Livers, Mike Smith and Franz Wagner, the the Wolverines return enough to keep them in the conversation with the country’s best.
Key Players: 7’1” center Hunter Dickinson who is a preseason AA candidate along with Brandon Johns and Eli Brooks. They also add highly touted recruit Claeb Houstan a 6’8” wing, who as a McDonalds All American, also led Team Canada to a bronze medal in the FIBA U19 World Cup.
3. Ohio State – Ranked anywhere from top 10 to the top 20, Ohio State must overcome the loss of their entire backcourt, losing CJ Walker to graduation and Duane Washington, Jr to the NBA. Despite that, they will, like Purdue, enjoy one of the most experienced group in college basketball.
Key Players: Preseason All American candidate E.J. Liddell flirted with the NBA after his sophomore season but ultimately decided to return for his Jr year. In addition, the Buckeyes return super senior Kyle Young and 5th year senior Justice Sueing, while adding 5th year senior and two-time All Big Ten defensive team guard Jamari Wheeler as a transfer from Penn State.
4. Illinois – A surprise return for the Illini as preseason AA, Kofi Cockburn decided to spurn the NBA and return to Illinois. Despite the loss of Ayo Dosunmu, there is enough talent in Champagne to contend for the upper tier of the Big Ten once again.
Key Players: The aforementioned Cockburn headlines a talented group that includes super senior guards Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams to go along with Andre Curbelo, who earned Big Ten All Freshman honors a year ago.
5. Michigan State – Replacing key contributors Aaron Henry, Joshua Henry and Rocket Watts won’t be easy but if anyone can reload, it’s Tom Izzo. The Spartans return a core of players who are ready to take the next step and a talented recruiting class that will have to step up immediately for the Spartans to challenge for the Big Ten title after a disappointing 15-13 season that included an exit in the First Four of the NCAA tourney.
Key Players: Marcus Bingham, Jr will anchor the middle and will be counted on to provide a boost in the scoring column on the block. The entire backcourt will need to be replaced, but Gabe Brown is a good start at the wing. The Spartans did benefit from the transfer portal, adding Northeastern guard Tyson Walker, who averaged 19 points per game and was the CAA defensive POY. McDonalds AA guard Max Christie will have a chance to make an immediate impact as wing scorer and plus defender.
The Big Ten will be competitive as usual and with the transfer portal affecting several teams, some positively and some negatively, it should be an interesting year at the top of the conference and Ohio State expects to be right there in contention. We will get our first look at the reloaded Buckeyes in just a couple weeks.
Ohio State will tip off the 2021-22 campaign with an exhibition game against D2 Indianapolis on November 1st at 7pm and airing on BTN+. They hit the hardwood for real on November 9th, hosting Akron in the Schottenstein Center for a 6pm tip and airing on ESPN2.