For the veterans, the work was only beginning. A team photo had just been taken at center court of the practice gym at the Schottenstein Center, and media day for the Ohio State men’s basketball team was about to get underway.
That meant roughly 45 minutes of questions and answers for the team’s returning players. As they dispersed to tables situated across the court, four players in white jerseys assembled for their final obligations of the day. Standing from left to right, freshmen Alonzo Gaffney, D.J. Carton, E.J. Liddell and Ibrahima Diallo clasped their hands behind their backs and smiled for a photo.Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our BuckeyeXtra newsletter
It was as much of a statement as they could make. A team policy that prevents freshmen from speaking to the media until after they have played in a game left coach Chris Holtmann and their new teammates to speak on their behalf.
There were the usual caveats about freshmen being freshmen and how there will be struggles ahead that can’t be explained, only experienced. Amid all that talk came a real sense that this class will have a significant say in what kind of season the Buckeyes ultimately produce — provided that the four can grow up quickly.
“Mature talent wins in college basketball — not necessarily age, because that’s not always the case, but mature talent wins consistently at the highest level of college basketball,” Holtmann said. “It’s our job to get this group as mature as quickly as possible.”
If recruiting rankings and high school accolades are to be believed, the talent is there. Carton and Gaffney spent time as five-star recruits, Liddell is only the second two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball winner, and at 7 feet tall, Diallo brings rare height to this roster.
Liddell was projected to be limited to start camp while dealing with an unspecified lower leg injury. But he was described a candidate to not only pair with the likes of Kyle Young, Andre Wesson or Gaffney but also has some potential to play center if needed.
“I think we’re going to play him all over the floor and hopefully put him in spots where he can be successful,” Holtmann said of Liddell. “We have a pretty good idea what he can do.”
The highest-rated player to ever sign with Holtmann, Carton was ranked No. 34 nationally in the 247Sports composite rankings. A true point guard, he brings a level of athleticism to the position that Ohio State hasn’t seen in recent years. One teammate raved about his quick-twitch muscles, and Holtmann praised his athleticism.
He’ll slot into the starting battle with Florida State transfer CJ Walker and figures to see plenty of playing time alongside him, as well.
“Very explosive, very smart, very athletic,” Walker said of Carton. “We fit hand-in-hand with each other. He’s a really good player, really smart, and he’s learning every day. I think we can play together. We’re both not selfish, we both have a high IQ, we both do a lot of things and get out in transition at the 1 or 2.”
Holtmann said he has referenced Keita Bates-Diop and his career path to Gaffney, who transferred to Wolfeboro Brewster Academy (New Hampshire) for his senior high school season. Consistency has eluded him, but his athleticism and high ceiling have him in the early mix for playing time at both small and power forward.
“We’ve got to try to get consistency out of him,” Holtmann said. “He’ll have normal ups and downs, but we’re really excited about what he can be. When that’s going to happen, who knows?”
Diallo is more raw than his classmates but provides a sizable post option and a big body for Kaleb Wesson to battle daily in practice.
“A lot of guys that size, their feet aren’t that good, but Ibrahima, he has a background in soccer,” Wesson said. “Being able to see that size and that shot-blocking ability being able to run down the floor, that’s what helps (me) a lot.”