COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – The new season can’t start soon enough for the No. 17 Ohio State Buckeyes, who were left frustrated after an unexpected early exit from last spring’s NCAA Tournament.
The Buckeyes were on a roll and came in as the South Region’s No. 2 seed, only to be taken down in the opening round by 15th-seeded Oral Roberts in one of the tournament’s biggest upsets.
Ohio State should have the tools to get back to the tournament. The team returns a core of upper classmen who will be complemented by some key plug-and-play transfers and a freshman or two.
Returning is All-Big-Ten forward E.J. Liddell, who considered entering the NBA draft but ultimately decided against it. Liddell, who led the team with 6.7 rebounds per game and was second in scoring with 16.2 points per game, said he wants to add to his legacy in Columbus.
“I came back looking forward to being one of the Buckeye greats,” Liddell said.
The Buckeyes finished fifth in the Big Ten last season with a 21-10 overall record and 12-8 conference mark. They got hot in the Big Ten Tournament, beating No. 20 Purdue and No. 4 Michigan before falling in the championship game to No. 3 Illinois in overtime.
That set up the 75-72 overtime loss to Oral Roberts that stunned the Buckeyes and most everybody else.
“One game isn’t going to define who we are,” Liddell said. “We got a lot of new guys, a lot of guys trying to feel their way into their role, but very high expectations. I expect nothing less from this group of guys that we have.”
Bigger role for Sueing?
The departure of the team’s leading scorer, Duane Washington (16.4 points per game), to the NBA opens a hole in the Buckeyes’ offense that coach Chris Holtmann hopes senior Justice Sueing will help fill.
Sueing, who transferred from California in 2019, was third on the team with 10.7 points per game in his first season for Ohio State. He shot 49.1% from the field and led the team with 29 steals.
“Getting that year under my belt, I think, has really added to my game,” Sueing said. “It’s allowed me to see the game differently, improve it. Being able to do that, I think going into this next season I’ll develop a bigger role and be able to really help this team.”
Sueing and Liddell were chosen captains this season, along with forwards Justin Ahrens and Kyle Young, the latter a popular forward and 3-point threat who decided to return for a fifth year of eligibility. The inside game will benefit from his physicality and experience.
Comings and goings
The Buckeyes have five newcomers after the departure of four.
Graduate transfer guards Cedric Russell, who averaged 17 points and shot 40% from 3-point range at Louisiana-Lafayette, and Jamari Wheeler, who averaged 6.8 points at Penn State, will help anchor the backcourt. Freshman guard Meechie Johnson showed promise after arriving from high school for the second half of last season. Ohio State also gained a true center with 6-foot-11 Indiana transfer Joey Brunk coming aboard.
Freshman guard and Ohio’s 2021 Mr. Basketball, Malaki Branham, joins the program from St. Vincent-St. Mary’s, the high school that produced LeBron James.
In all, six transfer players make up this year’s Buckeyes squad. Holtmann said that’s the new normal.
“We’ve really tried to be selective about the ones we take,” Holtmann said. “Do they fit our culture and our environment? That’s been really important to us. I think we’ll always be consistent with recruiting high school kids. We feel good about the help that we’ve gotten from transfers.”
Ohio State’s defense was a weak spot, ranking 197th in the country and allowing over 71 points per game last season. The addition of Wheeler should help, as he’s a two-time member of the Big Ten All-Defensive Team.
Ohio State opens on Nov. 9 against Akron, welcoming back fans to Value City Arena for the first time since 2019. Early nonconference games include No. 9 Duke, Xavier and Seton Hall. The Buckeyes also have conference games against Penn State and Wisconsin in December.
“I’ve always tried to play a really challenging nonconference,” Holtmann said. “We open with a really tough one. It’s the toughest nonconference schedule I’ve ever been a part of.”