Buckeye Basketball Preview – 2023-24
Buckeyes Look to Rebound After a Difficult 22-23 Campaign
Fall is in full swing, and while the football Buckeyes are once again among the Nation’s elite, Chris Holtmann’s basketball Bucks are hard at work preparing for a new start and a new season. Team #125 has some new faces, but the returning players are not forgetting the trying season a year ago where they finished near the bottom of the Big Ten and failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in the Holtmann era. There are scars from a year ago and they are moving on from it, but not forgetting, instead they are using it as fuel as they hit the reset button and look to bounce back in 23-24. The strong finish in the last couple weeks of the regular season and the run to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament gave the group confidence moving into the summer, but they know it was just the beginning of building a foundation of what they are hoping for bigger things to come. An offseason retreat to the Hocking Hills, where they left the cell phones at home helped bond them even tighter as a team and by all accounts from inside the locker room, this is a tight knit group who will play for one another which is critical through the ups and downs of a long college basketball season. Time will tell of course, but there is a lot of reason for optimism heading into the 23-24 season.
The Buckeyes return 6 scholarship players, 4 of which played extensively a year ago. Despite still being a young team, consisting of 5 sophomores and 4 freshmen, the trio of returning sophomores that played meaningful minutes, along with a critical pair of upperclassmen transfers, played extensively and gained valuable experience in 22-23, so much that Chris Holtmann doesn’t see the sophomores as true 2nd year players. Despite the youth, there are much less unknowns heading into this season. Zed Key is back fully healthy and the team will head into the season relatively healthy save a couple minor things here and there. A year ago, Ohio State became overly reliant on freshmen, starting 4 for much of the latter half of the season but this year, the freshmen, a second straight top ten class brought in by Coach Holtmann, won’t be counted on nearly as much as they needed to a year ago. While they have gained experience, they need to improve dramatically on both ends of the floor as their offensive and defensive efficiency numbers weren’t close to where they needed to be to be able to compete in the Big Ten. There is some cautious optimism coming from the coaching staff that defensively especially, they will be much improved as it has been a point of emphasis, but it has to be proven on the floor. Three key transfers were brought in that can help in different areas and all three will play important minutes for this group. Jamison Battle was the biggest get from the portal. Battle, who comes in from Minnesota brings added scoring punch from the wing, while Dale Bonner from Baylor adds another ball handler with speed and quickness. Finally Evan Mahaffey joins Ohio State after a year at Penn State and Evan brings NBA potential. Right now, he is a little raw, but boasts a high ceiling and can play key minutes at the 3 or 4.
Once again, the Buckeyes play another challenging schedule outside of the Big Ten, which may be the deepest and most talented conference in America. They will be tested out of the gate. After the opener against Oakland University, 15th ranked Texas A&M comes to town coming off a 25 win season and an NCAA appearance. The game with the Aggies is the first of a home and home where the Buckeyes travel to College Station next year. At the end of November, the Buckeyes head to Florida to play in the Emerald Coast Classic where they will face the potential of a pair of ranked opponents. First they will face #21 Alabama, who won 31 games a year ago, although lost several key pieces. They will follow that game up by playing Oregon, who is coming off a 21 win season or Santa Clara. The Buckeyes will return home after that trip and play Central Michigan before opening the Big Ten slate, hosting a Minnesota team in the midst of a rebuild and following a game with Miami University, head to Penn State, who like Minnesota is trying to rebuild with a new head coach, so the Buckeyes have a great chance to get off to a good start in conference play. They will finish the month of December in the non conference, with the highlights being the CBS Sports Classic in Atlanta, facing #25 UCLA and a trip to Cleveland to play West Virginia, although that game lost some juice with the firing of Coach Bob Huggins. January will see the Buckeyes getting back to Big Ten play full time the rest of the way and it’s incumbent upon them to play better in January, where they have struggled mightily several times in the Holtmann era, especially last year, when after beating Northwestern on Jan 1, they proceeded to lose 14 of the next 15, including a devastating home loss to Minnesota, who only won one more conference game the rest of the season.
The potential starting five is much clearer than it was this time last year and led by an experienced group who has gone through the rigors of a Big Ten season and know what it takes to get wins at this level. The key to winning basketball is a solid backcourt with a front line who can hit the glass and defend the block and that’s exactly what Ohio State has at its disposal in 2023-24.
PG – Bruce Thornton – Named a captain midway through his freshman season a year ago, Thornton is the key to the engine. Bruce was the only Buckeye to start all 35 games a year ago, capping a 10.6 point, 2.7 rebound and 2.6 assist per game season with a spot on the Big Ten all tournament team. He will not only be counted on as the floor general, he will be asked to add scoring punch as well. He has the ability to not only shoot the basketball from distance, he has the quickness with the ball in his hands to get to the rim and finish off the bounce. If he can improve on the defensive end, he has the potential of being a first team all conference type player.
SG – Roddy Gayle – After appearing in all 35 games a year ago, including 11 starts, 10 of which came in the team’s final 11 games, Roddy blossomed by the end of his freshman year, exploding in the Big Ten Tournament, averaging 12 points, while hitting on 64% of his shots, including 9 triples. He was the team’s top wing defender a year ago, and this year he will be asked to provide offense from the wing, a role he blossomed into down the stretch last season.
SF – Jamison Battle – Jamison comes to Ohio State for his final season of college basketball after spending the last two at Minnesota where he averaged 14.4 points and 5.4 rebounds for the Gophers. In his first year with the Gophers, he averaged 17.5 points, slipping to 12.4 a year ago after fighting injury. A prolific three point shooter, Battle is an explosive scorer and will be looked to fill a big scoring role for this year’s squad. If he can improve on the defensive end and on the glass, he can find a spot on an all conference team at year’s end.
SF – Scotty Middleton – A year ago, Ohio State started 4 freshmen for much of the latter half of the year. This year, with more experience, only one freshman is cracking my projected starting lineup and Middleton is that guy. A five star prospect from Sunrise Christian in Florida, Middleton was ranked the 34th best High School player nationally by ESPN. He helped Sunrise Christian reach the Geico Nationals in each of his last two seasons, averaging over 12 points and 2.5 assists. Middleton has length and the ability to dribble drive and finish that can cause mismatches offensively. He has a chance to be a big contributor to Ohio State’s success this season.
C – Felix Okpara or Zed Key – This is a spot that could go either way, but both will play significant minutes. First, returning captain and the team’s lone senior, Zed Key is back and healthy. Dropping 30 pounds in the offseason, Key is primed to have a big year and will fill a critical role in the post. Prior to his shoulder injury last season, Key was averaging 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds for a Buckeye team that was playing good basketball. After that injury, not only was Key not the same before finally shutting it down and having surgery, the team fell apart at the seams as well. A healthy Key will go a long way into determining the ceiling for this basketball team.
Okpara gained critical experience a year ago as a freshman, starting 11 games and playing in all 35, finishing with a 4 point and 3.6 rebound per game average and finishing 5th in the conference with 44 blocks. Okpara is highly athletic at nearly 7 feet and although a little raw offensively, he is highly effective as a rim protector on the defensive end. He gained 30 pounds of muscle in the offseason to prepare for the physicality of the Big Ten and will be looked upon to continue to improve on both ends of the floor. His ceiling is high and as his basketball IQ grows, the evidence will be obvious on the floor and he could be a dominant force in the middle for the next several seasons.
Coach Holtmann has intimated that Felix and Zed could see time together on the floor with Zed at the 4 and Felix at the 5, but time will tell if that is a formula that will be successful.
PG – Dale Bonner – Bonner, a Shaker Heights, Ohio native, will be in his final year of college basketball, starting his career at DII Fairmont State and the last two seasons at Baylor, where he appeared in 60 games, averaging 3.9 points and 2.1 assists. He is a pass-first point guard with speed that Chris Holtmann says the Buckeyes have not had in his tenure. He will primarily back up Thornton at the point but could see time alongside Bruce in the backcourt. He has been impressive preseason practice according to the coaching staff and brings a veteran presence and will be a critical piece to Ohio State’s success this season.
SF – Evan Mahaffey – Evan hails from Cincinnati where he was first team All Ohio his senior year at Moeller High School. He lands at Ohio State after spending his freshman season at Penn State where he averaged 2.8 points and 1.7 rebounds per game. Mahaffey has an NBA skill set that needs to be refined and the coaching staff expects him to take another step toward those expectations in the upcoming season. He will get plenty of minutes at the 3 and 4 with his length and athleticism.
SF – Devin Royal – Royal enters Ohio State as the reigning Ohio Mr. Basketball out of Pickerington Central High School after leading the Tigers to the D1 State title game in each of the last two seasons. At 6’6” 210, Royal is highly athletic who plays bigger than his size. He plays very physical in the paint, but can also play out on the wing and put the ball on the floor and get to the rim or facilitate offense for his teammates. He needs to continue to get stronger to be able to finish through contact and get rebounds at a high level in the Big Ten. He should see plenty of minutes off the bench and is poised to be a big contributor for the Buckeyes this season.
G – Taison Chatman – The highest rated prospect in the highly touted freshman class, Chatman was the top rated player in the state of Minnesota, leading his high school to back to back AAA state championships. Chatman is comfortable with the ball in his hands and also can play off the ball. He is an outstanding shooter, hitting 44% from three in his senior year of HS. He has a quick first step and can finish at the rim with regularity. Additionally, he is a plus defender and can play key minutes due to his length and quickness on the wing. Unfortunately, he won’t be an immediate part of this team’s plans as he is going to be out for about the first month of the regular season due to offseason surgery. Once he settles in and by the start of the new year, he could grow into a critical part of this year’s rotation.
C – Austin Parks – A four star prospect by ESPN, Parks enters Ohio State after a decorated career at St. Mary’s High School. At 6’10”, 250 lbs, Austin is a strong, physical post player who will provide depth in the middle for the Buckeyes. As a senior at St. Mary’s, Austin averaged 22.4 points and 6.5 rebounds as an all-Ohio performer in his final two seasons.
G – Bowen Hardman – Appearing in just 7 games his freshman year, Hardman is a pure shooter who showed those flashes in limited playing time a year ago, hitting 4 triples on 8 attempts in limited minutes. While playing time will once again be hard to come by in his sophomore season, he can see the floor at times to provide some instant offense. The key for Hardman according to Coach Holtmann is Bowen has to learn how to defend at this level, because his shooting ability is unquestioned.
SF – Kalen Etzler – After redshirting his freshman year in order to gain strength, Etzler enters his redshirt sophomore year after getting limited playing time a year ago, playing in only 9 games, scoring 7 points and pulling down 12 rebounds. At 6’10’ 190, He is an outstanding shooter at his size and can create matchup problems with his length but needs to continue to get stronger and more physical to see any meaningful minutes again this season.
Walk Ons – The Buckeye roster will have a pair of walk-ons again this season in Colby Baumann and Owen Spencer. Baumann saw time in just three games a year ago, while Spencer played in 7, scoring 3 points. Both will fill the same important roles again this season.
BIG TEN PROJECTIONS
The Big Ten projects as the best conference in college basketball again this season and looks to be highly competitive near the top. While some outstanding players have gone on to bigger and better things, several key players put off their professional dreams for another shot at college basketball. Purdue and Michigan State seem to be in tier 1, while a handful of teams, including Ohio State fall into the 2nd tier, all battling for the top half of the conference. Below are my projections for how the conference will shake out in mid March.
1. Michigan State – The Spartans return several key pieces from a team that really blossomed come tournament time, making a run to the Sweet 16 as a 7 seed. In addition, Coach Tom Izzo welcomes a top 5 class to campus for a team poised to have a big 23-24 season.
Key Returnees: A.J. Hoggard (12.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 5.9 apg)
Tyson Walker (14.8 ppg)
Jaden Akins (9.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
Mady Sissoko (9.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg)
Key Losses: Joey Hauser (14.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg)
Malik Hall (8.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg)
Key Newcomers: Xavier Booker 6-10 205 C, #11 prospect
Jeremy Fears 6-0 180 PG, #32 prospect
Coen Carr 6-7 200 SF, #46 prospect
2. Purdue – The defending Big Ten Champions, Coach Painter gets back all his production from a year ago, including National Player of the Year, Zach Edey. The entire offense goes through Edey and if Purdue wants to repeat as conference champions, they will need to get more from the wing which was exposed with their first round exit in the NCAA tournament, becoming just the 2nd 1 seed to lose in the opening round.
Key Returnees: Zach Edey (22.3 ppg, 12.9 rpg)
Foster Loyer (11.0 ppg)
Braden Smith (9.7 ppg)
Key Losses: Brandon Newman (transferred to WKU)
Key Newcomers: Lance Jones, 6-1 190 PG, 13.8 ppg at So Illinois
3. Illinois – The Illini come off a NCAA tournament season, where they dropped a first round game as a 9 seed. Although they lose production from a year ago, key components along with an active offseason in the portal puts Illinois in a position to contend for the upper half of the conference once again.
Key Returnees: A.J. Hoggard (12.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 5.9 apg)
Tyson Walker (14.8 ppg)
Jaden Akins (9.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
Mady Sissoko (9.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg)
Key Losses: Matthew Mayer (13.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
Skyy Clark (7.0 ppg) – transfer to Louisville
Jayden Epps (10.0 ppg) – transfer to Georgetown
Key Newcomers: Marcus Domask 6-6 215 F, 16.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg at So Illinois
RayJ Dennis 6-2 180 SG, 19.5 ppg at Toledo
4. Ohio State – The Buckeyes played primarily 4 freshmen a year ago and although young in age this season, they don’t lack in experience. Although they will miss a lot of offensive production from a year ago, Coach Holtmann returns several key pieces and adds a top 10 recruiting class along with several additions from the transfer portal.
Key Returnees: Zed Key (10.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg)
Bruce Thornton (10.6 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.6 apg)
Key Losses: Brice Sensabaugh (16.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
Justice Sueing (12.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg)
Sean McNeil (9.7 ppg)
Key Newcomers: Jamison Battle 6-7 225 F, 12.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg at Minnesota
Taison Chatman 6-4 170 CG, #33 prospect
Devin Royal 6-7 210 SF, #52 prospect
Scotty Middleton 6-6 180 SF, #60 prospect
5. Maryland – The Terps finished in a three way tie for 5th in the conference a year ago before losing a quarterfinal Big Ten tournament game to Indiana. After earning an 8 seed in the NCAA tournament, they advanced to the 2nd round where they fell to #1 seed Alabama. The Terps return the core of that roster and are poised to finish in the upper half of the conference race again this season.
Key Returnees: Julian Reese (11.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg)
Jahmir Young (15.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg)
Donta Scott (11.3 ppg, 6 rpg)
Key Losses: Hakim Hart (11.4 ppg 4.1 rpg) transferred to Villanova
Key Newcomers: DeShawn Harris-Smith 6-4 180 #32 prospect
6. Wisconsin – The Badgers come off a 20-15 season, dropping a first round Big Ten tournament game to Ohio State and earning an invite to the NIT where they advanced to the semi finals losing to eventual champion North Texas. Coach Greg Gard returns all his key roster members from last year’s team and looks poised to finish in the top half of the conference.
Key Returnees: Chucky Hepburn (12.2 ppg)
Connor Essegian (11.9 ppg)
Steven Crowl (11.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg)
Tyler Wahl (11.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg)
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Gus Yalden 6-8 240 C, #100 prospect
7. Rutgers – The Scarlet Knights finished last season 18-13 and in a 9th place tie in the Big Ten. They finished the season, dropping a first round NIT game to underdog Hofstra. Although they lost some key players from last year’s roster to graduation and the portal, they return a lot of production and with the addition of several players from the transfer portal, they figure to be in the mix for a top half finish in the conference.
Key Returnees: Aundre Hyatt (9.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg)
Mawot Mag (7.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
Clifford Omoruyi (13.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg)
Key Losses: Cam Spencer (12.7 ppg) – transfer to UConn
Paul Mulcahy (8.2 ppg, 4.9 apg) – transfer to Wash
Caleb McConnell (9.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg)
Key Newcomers: Noah Fernandes 5-11 175 PG – 13.4 ppg, 4.1 apg at UMass
The Bottom half of the conference projections are below, however a team or two could challenge for the upper half as there seems to be a surprise or two nearly every year.
12. Penn State
It will once again be a challenging year at the top of the Big Ten conference with as many as 8 or 9 teams legitimately having a chance to get into the NCAA Tournament with a pair of top 5 teams in the preseason in Purdue and Michigan State. Ohio State figures to be right in the mix near the top of the conference. Having experience coming back and additions from the portal will benefit this year’s team and have them much more prepared for the rigors of the Big Ten schedule. Last year, clearly the inexperience and youth across the board put the Buckeyes in a position where they had to play a majority freshman lineup that they won’t have to this season and the growing pains were evident. Nationally they aren’t getting a lot of run in the preseason due to in large part the season they had a year ago and for good reason. The Buckeyes know they have to prove it on the floor and that’s what’s fueling them. This may be the deepest and most talented team in the Chris Holtmann era fueled by back to back top 10 recruiting classes but time will tell if it translates to the floor. It’s an important season for Coach Holtmann and his staff and it all kicks off on Sunday evening with a charity exhibition at UD Arena at 6PM and airing on ESPN+. The exhibition is part of a weekend long event raising money for mental health awareness which is an extremely important cause and it will be a sold out crowd to witness the event. It won’t necessarily be played like a ‘real game’, although it will be a pair of 20 minute halves, but look for Ohio State to try out a lot of combinations of lineups and go deep into the bench early and often. Next weekend the Buckeyes head to Nashville for a ‘secret’ scrimmage against Clemson before the Buckeyes tip it for real in the Schottenstein Center on November 6 at 7PM as Ohio State will welcome Oakland University to Columbus in a game airing on BTN +. The Buckeyes are anxious to put last year behind them so let the games begin and here’s to an outstanding bounce back season for the Scarlet and Gray.