Five questions as Ohio State officially starts men's basketball practice
The longest offseason in college basketball history has officially come to a close.
Wednesday marks the first date that teams are permitted to hold full team practices since last season was canceled on the cusp of the NCAA Tournament, signaling the newest and biggest step toward opening the season on Nov. 25.
For Ohio State, that means a chance to finally start to tinker with the new options at coach Chris Holtmann’s disposal on what is a new-yet-experienced roster.
Although a full season schedule has not been released, nor have the coronavirus testing protocols that can make this season a reality, here are five questions for the Buckeyes to start grappling with as they officially begin practice.
1. How does this all fit together?
For the entire 2019-20 season, Ohio State utilized 135 different lineup combinations. The rotation changed throughout the year, affected by injuries, suspensions and D.J. Carton’s midseason decision to leave the team.
Of those 135 different lineups, only one was comprised entirely of players who return for the 2020-21 season, and it wasn’t exactly heavily featured. A lineup of C.J. Walker, Duane Washington Jr., Justin Ahrens, E.J. Liddell and Kyle Young played a total of 4 minutes, 27 seconds in consecutive, early February road games against Michigan and Wisconsin and was outscored 13-4 during that time.
So there’s not exactly a lot of experience returning. That doesn’t mean the Buckeyes aren’t grizzled, though. Walker, Seth Towns and Abel Porter are in their fifth years of college basketball. Jimmy Sotos, Young, Musa Jallow and Justice Sueing are all in their fourth years. Only two freshmen are on the roster, and in all seven of the 13 scholarship players are at least in their fourth year.
In summary: the Buckeyes are new to each other, but they aren’t new to the level. That should help when it comes to facing adversity throughout the season, but how much it will help build quick chemistry is an open question.
2. How do the Buckeyes compensate for the loss of Kaleb Wesson?
When opponents drew up game plans for Ohio State the past two seasons, they always started with Wesson down low. He was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder in each of the past two seasons before departing early for the NBA draft.
He leaves behind the void of being the Buckeyes' primary post option and, last season, its most accurate three-point shooter.
There’s a lot to replace there. Wesson played last season listed at 6 feet 9, 270 pounds but was somewhat lighter than that. This year’s team has five players listed either 6-7 or 6-8, and their weights range from 215 pounds (Sueing) to 245 (freshman Zed Key). That list doesn’t include sophomore Ibrahima Diallo, who might be the most physically imposing at 6-10, 200 pounds but remains a work in progress.
There’s no like-for-like substitution for Wesson on the roster. Young figures to open the season at center with sophomore Liddell at power forward, but both will see significant minutes at the spot. So, too, could Key, who will have a legitimate opportunity to carve out playing time.
Expect to see the Buckeyes try to harness their versatility by playing without a traditional center and relying on their athleticism to compensate for a lack of sheer size. Holtmann has said one of his primary concerns will be limiting opposing teams’ two-point field goal percentage. The Buckeyes excelled there last season, holding teams to 44.2%, the 17th-best mark in the nation.
This will require multiple players to do more, and it will take some time to figure it all out.
3. When will the roster be fully healthy?
Sueing will open camp without restriction after having foot surgery in mid-January, cutting short his sit-out transfer season. The leading scorer at the University of California two seasons ago, he’ll be full-go.
Two other players are recovering from their own procedures and have different timelines. Versatile wing Jallow took a medical redshirt last season after undergoing a pair of ankle procedures, and Holtmann said on Oct. 2 that Jallow could possibly be ready for the start of practice.
The same doesn’t go for Towns, the Harvard graduate transfer who has missed the last two seasons because of injury and underwent knee surgery in January. Holtmann said Towns’ timeline is more in line with a full return to game action in late November. A December debut might be more likely for the Columbus native, who has publicly promised fans that they will see how much playing for Ohio State means to him whenever he is back out on the court.
Everyone else is expected to be healthy and ready for the start of camp.
4. Are there enough guards?
When the Buckeyes lost first Carton and then Luther Muhammad to transfer following the season, Holtmann cast his lot with his two returning guards who played their best basketball down the stretch. This year’s backcourt will be anchored by Walker, a senior, and Washington, a junior, the two returning players with the most playing time a season ago.
The Buckeyes added Porter, who will back up both spots as a graduate transfer from Utah State, but the trio is expected to almost exclusively assume the minutes at both guard spots with mostly Walker at the point and Washington at shooting guard.
Holtmann could be hedging his bets, though. Sotos, a Bucknell transfer ticketed to sit out the season, has applied for a waiver for the NCAA that would grant him immediate eligibility. As a junior, he led the Bison in scoring (11.5 points per game) and assists (3.9) while starting all 34 games.
If the waiver is denied, Sueing, Jallow or even freshman Gene Brown III could possibly see limited duty at the off-guard spot in a pinch.
“We really do see Justice as a bit of a playmaker for us,” Holtmann said. “We’re going to need that. We’re thin at the perimeter positions.”
5. Is E.J. Liddell ready for the spotlight?
Washington is the favorite to lead the team in scoring. He leads all returning players and finished second on last year’s team at 11.5 points per game, and with the lack of bodies in the backcourt his opportunities to score and make plays figure to increase.
Down low, though, Liddell seems primed to blossom into a star as a sophomore. He finished eighth on the team in scoring at 6.7 points per game last year but came into his own down the stretch. Playing behind Wesson and Young, Liddell scored in double figures in three of the final six games punctuated by a 17-point, 11-rebound outburst against home-state Illinois.
He figures to battle Washington for the leading scorer title and grow into a featured offensive role. For now, he has to continue to work on his conditioning, expand his game toward the perimeter and grow in defensive versatility.
But the hype is real.
“He’ll be critical for us,” Holtmann said. “There’s no question. I’m excited to see what these next two months of preparation are for him, because he’s going to be critical. We have to understand he’s still a sophomore, but he’s certainly going to be a more featured part of what we do this year because we’re going to need that.”