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Keys to the 2020-21 season for Ohio State men's basketball

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Can junior forward Justin Ahrens be the Buckeyes' secret weapon? He can be if his three-point shooting improves.

Key offensive players

In the backcourt, junior Duane Washington Jr. is the odds-on favorite to lead the team in scoring this season. His biggest task will be to get there while also growing his efficiency. Justice Sueing will make plays from the wing and get to the rim, while E.J. Liddell and Kyle Young will have to compensate for the loss of Kaleb Wesson at center.

Key defensive players

Ohio State lost its three top defenders in Luther Muhammad, Andre Wesson and Kaleb Wesson. CJ Walker is an above-average defender but lacks size. Freshman Gene Brown III is versatile but raw. It’s not clear who will emerge as shut-down defenders on this roster, but it’s imperative that at least one person does.

Secret weapon

He’s announced himself on a handful of occasions during his first two seasons, but junior Justin Ahrens has a chance to step into a much bigger role this season as a three-point specialist. He told The Dispatch during the preseason that he’s aiming to be a 20-minute-per-game type of guy, and he’s consistently been the team’s best offseason shooter. The stage is set for Ahrens to take a jump forward.

Biggest offseason move

Landing a waiver that grants Bucknell transfer Jimmy Sotos immediate eligibility is a significant addition to the roster in the wake of Abel Porter being diagnosed with a genetic heart condition that ended his playing career. Sotos was a solid player for the Bison and will have to adapt to a higher level of play, but he gives coach Chris Holtmann a veteran in the backcourt to help spell Walker and Washington.

Pressure’s on

It might be too much too soon, but Liddell’s improved play down the stretch has raised expectations for his sophomore season. He finished eighth on the team at 6.7 points per game last year, which makes projecting him as the leading scorer a bit of a stretch, but he will need to handle a key production load down low while also expanding his game to the three-point line. It’s a lot to ask of a second-year player, but Ohio State will need his scoring ability early and often.

Key stretches

Attempting to play a season in the midst of a pandemic makes every stretch of completed games vital, and it’s hard to tell which games will actually get completed and when. The Big Ten built some flex weeks into the schedule to allow teams to make up games that are postponed due to the pandemic. A three-game December stretch of games at Notre Dame and Purdue and then against North Carolina in Cleveland will provide early benchmarks on where this team is. The Buckeyes finish the season with games against three of the four top contenders to win the Big Ten: at Michigan State on Feb. 25, home against Iowa three days later and home against Illinois on March 6.

More:Men's basketball: Schedule mostly set for Ohio State, but need for resiliency grows

Stats that must change

After finishing 193rd nationally in turnover percentage two years ago, the Buckeyes were worse last season and finished 197th. In conference play, the Buckeyes had the worst three-point defense, allowing opponents to shoot 34.8%. Returning players shot a combined 34.9% (112 for 321) from three for the Buckeyes last season. Ohio State is 3-11 (.214) in January games during the last two seasons and 38-14 (.731) the rest of the year.

Bottom line

The Buckeyes are in a unique spot of having an older roster that is relatively new to the program. Two players are in their fifth year of college basketball, four more are in their fourth and three are juniors. Yet Ohio State returns only 48.5% of its total minutes played last season. There’s no obvious replacement for a player like Kaleb Wesson, who led the team in scoring and rebounding in each of the past two seasons. The team’s maturity will be crucial in a season with so many outside pressures, but it will take multiple players making significant advances in their overall games for the Buckeyes to mount a challenge at the top of the standings.

Buckeyes go dancing if …

Kyle Young stays healthy, Seth Towns gets healthy, Sueing steps right into a go-to role and the three-man backcourt of Walker, Washington and Sotos makes enough plays while taking care of the ball at a high level. And if COVID allows an NCAA Tournament to be played safely.

Buckeyes suffer if …

Nobody proves an adept rim protector, nobody steps up as the lead on-ball or wing defender and any one of the three true guards on the roster suffers an injury or any sort of COVID-related absence.

Where do they end up?

Without knowing what the full schedule will ultimately look like, the call is 17-10 overall, 10-10 and seventh in the Big Ten.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy