The Ohio State men’s basketball program is not under water, but Buckeyes fans still should hold their breath.
Three players have transferred out of the program in the past three weeks, making it five over the past two seasons. That’s not quite the exodus witnessed by former Ohio State coach Thad Matta over his last few seasons — his entire five-player 2015 recruiting class left early — but it also is not what coach Chris Holtmann had in mind when he set out to pick up the pace of the program upon arriving in 2017.
Recruit ’em to lose ’em is no way to build a sustainable championship team.
For those keeping score: ultra-talented freshman D.J. Carton. Gone. Alonzo Gaffney, like Carton a prized recruit from the 2019 class. Gone. Sophomore Luther Muhammad, the Buckeyes’ best on-ball defender who started 56 of 64 games in two seasons. Gone. Also, Micah Potter and Jaedon LeDee transferred in 2018-19 to Wisconsin and TCU, respectively.
Who is next out the door? Most likely junior Kaleb Wesson, depending on how NBA draft and overseas options shake out in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that has shut down all pro leagues. Wesson was the team’s leader in scoring, rebounding and three-point and free-throw percentage.
Would Wesson be the last to leave before next season arrives? It seems unlikely more Buckeyes would vamoose from Value City Arena before then; Holtmann and his staff would be shocked if that happened.
But fans should not exhale just yet, because Holtmann just welcomed two new transfers into the program — Bucknell guard Jimmy Sotos, who must sit out a year, and forward Seth Towns, a graduate transfer from Harvard who gains immediate eligibility.
Combine those additions with Cal transfer Justice Sueing, freshmen Gene Brown and Zed Key and the return of Musa Jallow from injury and, well, there is only one basketball and five on the floor at a time. Somebody will be unhappy, and unhappiness often leads to transfer.
The latest early departures reflect the facets of modern college basketball player movement, which according to the NCAA saw 704 Division I men’s players (out of more than 5,500) transfer in the 2018-19 season.
Carton left while dealing with mental-health issues, then entered the NCAA transfer portal without offering detailed explanation. It makes sense that a change of scenery might help him, and it makes more sense if he ends up at a school closer to his home in Iowa. But if Carton lands at a major-college program far from home, well, his departure becomes a head-scratcher.
Gaffney and Muhammad each wanted larger roles for different reasons — Muhammad as a go-to player on offense, Gaffney to showcase his skills for what could be an upcoming decision to turn pro. Note: there is a huge difference between turning pro and playing as a pro, but I digress.
High transfer numbers nationally may present a nothing-to-see-here scenario, but it is not unreasonable to wonder why Holtmann is losing top recruits that have him increasingly relying on transfers to build the program.
Painting a positive picture, players are transferring into Ohio State as fast as they transfer out, which reflects college basketball’s revolving door at work.
But even when extending benefit of the doubt and setting negative speculation aside, it remains that the spate of transfers puts the Buckeyes in a perilous position entering next season, especially if Wesson departs for a paycheck.
Without Wesson and Muhammad, your starting five looks like:
Point guard: CJ Walker’s numbers improved after Carton took his leave of absence, averaging 14 points and 4.3 assists over his final six games. But how will he fare without having Wesson to work down low?
Shooting guard: this job is Duane Washington’s to lose, and there will be games when he will try to do just that. Washington is equal parts effective and erratic.
Forwards: E.J. Liddell, who like Walker flashed over the final six games, averaging 10 points and six rebounds. But his defense needs work and he must cut down on fouling. Joining Liddell likely will be either Sueing, who can swing to the two-guard in a pinch, or Towns.
Center: Kyle Young scraps for points and rebounds, which makes him one of OSU’s most important pieces. But Young has dealt with a stress fracture in his leg, appendicitis and high ankle sprains the past two seasons. Can he stay healthy?
Can that group contend for a Big Ten title, make the NCAA Tournament and advance past the Sweet 16? Wesson is the last holdover from the Matta era. If/when he leaves, these guys are all Holtmann’s. For now.