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One looming question for every Ohio State men's basketball player this season

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
The Ohio State men's basketball team opens the season against Illinois State on Wednesday at Value City Arena.

The Ohio State men’s basketball team will open the 2020-21 season against Illinois State on Wednesday at Value City Arena. Now in his fourth season with the program, coach Chris Holtmann has a 13-man active roster that will expand to 14 in December when freshman Meechie Johnson Jr. officially joins the team.

In an unprecedented year, the Buckeyes are more likely than ever to need every single player to make contributions during a season to be played amid a national pandemic. With contact tracing protocols and the near-daily testing threatening to suspend or derail the season at any moment, here is a look at one burning question for each player who could step on the court for Ohio State this season, listed alphabetically.

Justin Ahrens

Dispatch preseason power ranking: 7

Is he ready to be an every-game player?

Two seasons in, the left-handed junior small forward has shown an ability to change a game with his three-point shooting. His 29-point outburst against Iowa late in his freshman season remains an unparalleled performance in program history, and he helped spark the Buckeyes to wins at Northwestern and against Indiana that helped turn the 2019-20 season around. However, Ahrens never has averaged more than 10 minutes a game. 

Gene Brown III

Dispatch preseason power ranking: 11

Can he do enough offensively?

Brown brings a 6-foot-6, 195-pound frame to Ohio State’s wing position that will allow him to guard multiple positions and switch defensively on ball screens. Early reviews paint a picture of a talented, athletic freshman with upside but needing more polish on offense to make a true impact. The Buckeyes have depth, so he’s not likely to carve out a significant role, but he has tools to help.

Ibrahima Diallo

Dispatch preseason power ranking: 9

Is he capable of earning a role?

Nobody else on the roster brings the sheer size and presence that the 6-10, 220-pound Diallo provides. As evidenced by his minimal playing time last season — Diallo saw four minutes of action in Big Ten games — the sophomore big man reported to Ohio State as a major work in progress. With Kaleb Wesson gone, Diallo most resembles a true center on this roster.

Harrison Hookfin

Dispatch preseason power ranking: 13

Can he play in a pinch?

Hookfin has totaled 22 minutes in nine appearances since walking on in the midst of the 2018-19 season. He made a significant impact as a high school senior at Lebanon, then joined the Buckeyes when midseason depth concerns led to the need for another practice body. In a season when depth will be tested like never before, is he capable of potentially being thrust into action?

Ohio State junior guard Musa Jallow (2) has showed flashes of athletic brilliance in his college career, but injuries have limited his opportunities to be a consistent contributor.

Musa Jallow

Dispatch preseason power ranking: 8

How quickly can he shake the rust?

Through two seasons, Jallow has proven himself to be among the Buckeyes' most athletic and versatile players. That progression has been delayed by two ankle surgeries that forced him to take a medical redshirt last season and robbed him of his entire offseason. Jallow is physically gifted and mature beyond his age, but he struggled to be a consistent offensive presence during his first two seasons, averaging 2.7 points in 68 games, including 23 starts.

Meechie Johnson Jr.

Dispatch preseason power ranking: N/A

Is he ready for a role?

Johnson graduated high school early, reclassified to the 2020 class and will join the Buckeyes in December after missing his entire junior season at Garfield Heights due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He’s going to have to shake off the rust of having played only a few AAU games in the past 18 months or so, making it hard to project his role this season. However, he’ll be one of only four guards on the roster and the experience he gains will be valuable for next season, when he will be counted on.

Zed Key Jr.

Dispatch preseason power ranking: 10

Can he avoid foul trouble?

The 6-8, 245-pound Key will be asked to log center minutes as the heaviest player on the team. A gifted post scorer with a good work ethic, Key has played his way ahead of Diallo and will be asked to help replace Wesson. The biggest challenge will be for tthe freshman to hone in on his role, which likely won’t be as a featured scorer, and to do so while not picking up too many quick fouls.

E.J. Liddell

Dispatch preseason power ranking: 4

What kind of jump can he make?

As a freshman, Liddell averaged 6.7 points and 3.8 rebounds but started to come into his own during the final 10 games of the season. His minutes are going to grow significantly, and he’s an odds-on favorite to assume a starting spot as a sophomore. That should result in increased production, especially if he’s able to continue improving his conditioning and can play harder for longer stretches. Liddell is going to graduate from being at the tail end of the opposing teams’ scouting reports to a key point of focus.

Jimmy Sotos

Dispatch preseason power ranking: 12 (ranking created before waiver was approved)

Is he ready to step it up a notch?

For the past three seasons, Sotos proved himself vital to a Bucknell team that averaged 20 wins per season. He brings above-average shooting and passing abilities but has not had to test them against high-major competition on a nightly basis. He began the preseason ticketed for the scout team until a waiver request for immediate eligibility was granted, moving him into the top backup spot, which should mean roughly 20 minutes per game.

Justice Sueing

Dispatch preseason power ranking: 2

Can he shoulder the load?

Sueing arrived at Ohio State as a transfer after having been the best player on a bad Cal team. He sat out last season due to NCAA rules and was then sidelined by a foot injury that cost him roughly six months. But he is back to full health and ready to slot into the starting lineup. He’s a legitimate option to be the team’s leading scorer and will be counted on as a playmaker.

Seth Towns

Dispatch preseason power ranking: 6

When does he get back to his old self?

When Towns opted to transfer from Harvard and play for his hometown school, it gave the Buckeyes the No. 1 graduate transfer on the market, a top-flight player who still had two years of eligibility remaining. The problem is that Towns is still recovering from a knee injury he suffered in January and is still trying to work his way back into full-contact situations. That might not be for a few more weeks, and Towns might not play in games until December or January.

CJ Walker

Dispatch preseason power ranking: 3

How far can he lead this team?

Once he took over the point guard spot on a full-time basis last season, Walker blossomed and was the engine behind OSU’s late-season surge. His leadership capabilities make Holtmann gush about Walker like he’s his own child, and it’s clear he is the leader of what is a mostly veteran team. He can improve on some of his shooting numbers, and he turned the ball over too often during the first half of last season, but Walker is a fifth-year senior who will take this team as far as it can go.

Duane Washington Jr.

Dispatch preseason power ranking: 1

Can his production grow alongside his efficiency?

We know that Washington can score in bunches. We also know that he likes to take his shot, a mentality that has occasionally gotten him a quick hook or a withering glare from Holtmann. This season, he is the player most likely to lead the Buckeyes in scoring, but the key will be to do so while not merely being a volume shooter. He could be set up for a dynamite season as long as his decision-making matures with him.

Kyle Young

Dispatch preseason power ranking: 5

Can he be a serviceable shooter?

For the past two seasons, Young has flirted with setting single-season school shooting record for his ability to convert high-percentage shots around the rim. This year, he will be asked to do more and have the offense flow through him on occasion, and that will include perimeter shooting. If he can knock down the occasional three-pointer, it will help stretch defenses and provide more opportunities for everyone around him.\

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy