When Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann described this season’s men's basketball opener as the most challenging he has had to prepare for, it wasn’t for the obvious reasons.

In facing Cincinnati, the Buckeyes will play for Ohio pride against a team with players that many of them grew up competing with and against on the AAU circuit. In senior Jarron Cumberland, the Bearcats boast a potential first-team All-American and the American Athletic Conference’s preseason player of the year. He scored 22 second-half points last season to nearly spark a comeback against the Buckeyes.

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But it wasn’t just for those reasons that the game has had Holtmann on edge for weeks. It mostly concerned what the two teams know about each other and what that portends for an Ohio State team featuring seven first- or second-year players.

The Bearcats have a pretty good idea how the Buckeyes might play. In two seasons under Holtmann, Ohio State has featured a top-25 defense while relying on a key offensive player or two to shoulder much of the scoring burden.

But with first-year coach John Brannen calling the shots for a Cincinnati roster featuring transfer players from three schools, the Buckeyes might find themselves forced to adjust on the fly to a changing game plan. How well they handle that set of circumstances will go a long way toward deciding the outcome.

“You’re trying to help your team prepare in every way and then making your team understand there’s going to be some unknowns with all the things we’ve talked about,” Holtmann said Tuesday. “All of that makes you anxious.

"They probably have more on us because of returning system, returning players, returning coach. There will have to be some in-game stuff we’ll have to work through as a staff.”

During Holtmann’s first season, then-junior Jae’Sean Tate said he thought Holtmann could see the future because of how well-prepared the Buckeyes were and how the team was able to adapt during games. That team featured five upperclassmen, including a graduate transfer in his fifth season.

This season’s team has just one scholarship senior in Andre Wesson.

“With having a young team, early on we’re going to have games where we’re going to have a lot of stuff to learn from,” junior forward Kyle Young said. “I think with every game it matters that we come back and look at the details, whether it’s a win or loss.”

In preparing for this game, Holtmann said the staff has had to break down film from multiple schools to try to project what the Bearcats might look like. Brannen coached at Northern Kentucky the past four seasons and added transfers from Oakland, Valparaiso and New Mexico, in addition to a player who followed him from the Norse to the Bearcats.

Plus, there’s the Bearcats game film from last season — and the Buckeyes know the type of physicality that promises.

“This game is going to show how much heart we have,” junior center Kaleb Wesson said. “You also have Cincinnati bringing that toughness to the game. Us being able to withstand those hits and being able to play while they’re fouling I think is really going to show how much heart this team has and how we react to adversity.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy