Notebook: Ohio State shows improvement, E.J. Liddell channels Kobe Bryant and more

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State Buckeyes forward Kyle Young (25) throws down a dunk against Morehead State Eagles forward Johni Broome (4) during the second half of their game at Covelli Center in Columbus, Ohio on December 2, 2020.

One early-season game does not solve all issues for a basketball team.

Sunday afternoon, Ohio State men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann watched his No. 23 Buckeyes struggle to put away upset-minded UMass Lowell at the Covelli Center. Ultimately, it would become a 74-64 win against the River Hawks, and it would add intrigue to a Wednesday afternoon game with Morehead State that would otherwise lack sizzle.

Three days later, the Buckeyes didn’t magically flip a switch that erased all that had ailed them against UMass Lowell. But they did build an early lead, sustain it throughout and blow it open late in what would be 77-44 win that was marked by balance, better defense and a couple of three-pointers that actually went in this time.

“This was a definite improvement from the other night,” Holtmann said. “I thought we just played more connected on both ends. Good win. Most importantly some improvement in some areas we worked on these last couple of days.”

Although there were multiple areas, as Holtmann mentioned, the common thread throughout was what he described as better connectedness at both ends of the court.

It wasn’t all great. There was the good:

“I thought in general we were a little more connected on both ends,” he said. “We shared the ball and moved it a little bit better than we had. We played through the post better.

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And the not-so-good:

“We still wasted a lot of possessions offensively,” Holtmann said. “I thought we were good in transition and at the same time we were struggling finishing like we were the other day. We saw some zone. We still weren’t great at attacking it.”

Ohio State shot 44.3% (27 for 61) for the game and 38.5% (10 for 26) from three and had 15 assists to only seven turnovers. It closed the game with a 19-2 run to remove all doubt and led by double digits for the final 18:25.

The Buckeyes were without fourth-year junior Musa Jallow, who missed his second straight game with an unspecified injury to his lower right leg. He watched while wearing a walking boot. They were without Harvard graduate transfer Seth Towns, who went through most of warmups and tweeted Monday “very soon,” implying he’s nearly back from knee injuries that have robbed him of the last two seasons. They’ve got new faces dotting the roster, players sitting into new roles and plenty of questions about how things fit and how that will change as the year progresses.

So while this was a step forward, it wasn’t the only step necessary.

“I just felt like we needed to come out and compete,” sophomore forward E.J. Liddell, who led all scorers with 16 points, said. “We didn’t compete at our highest level Sunday. This was a good bounce-back game to come out and show what we could do.”

Closing

That was especially evident during the final 13 minutes of the game. Morehead State pulled within 49-37 on a three-pointer from Skyelar Potter, but two possessions later the Buckeyes got a bucket from Cal transfer Justice Sueing to push it back to a 14-point lead.

It was the start of a 28-7 run to close the game during which the Eagles would make only two more field goals to finish with four for the half. The Buckeyes held their visitors to 13.3% shooting (4 for 30) after the teams went into the half with Ohio State ahead by 10 at 37-27.

“I just feel like we were more connected,” Liddell said of the game. “People on the bench were connected. People were talking a lot. In practice we have to work on being more connected and not getting into our own shells. We talked a lot. We were very vocal. Everybody who came off the bench was vocal and that helped us stay connected.”

Six Buckeyes scored during that stretch. Justin Ahrens hit three three-pointers, Duane Washington Jr. hit two, Kyle Young had five points, Sueing had four and both Liddell and CJ Walker had two apiece.

“I thought we had a really good first half,” Morehead State coach Preston Spradlin said. “The game got away from us. Anytime you come in the second half and make four field goals you’re going to have a hard time winning. They really tightened things up in the second half. They made some adjustments on us.”

Included in there was the first three-pointer of the season from Young, who had made a total of four through his first three years. Ahrens, too, broke through after missing his only attempt Sunday and his first three attempts Wednesday by draining his final three attempts.

“It’s huge,” Young said of hitting his first three of the season. “I want to be able to consistently shoot them. In the offseason I was able to shoot it really well. It’s translating that to games now for me. Seeing one go in adds a little confidence. Hopefully I keep that going.”

Threes

Ohio State was 4 for 18 from three in its first game at the Covelli Center. Wednesday night, they weren’t much better until the final minutes of the game.

The Buckeyes helped blow it open by hitting five of their final six three-pointers. To that point, they had been 5 for 20 (20.0%). Adding that to the UMass Lowell game, Ohio State was a combined 9 for 38 (23.7%) until its hot streak.

‘Kobe!’

Liddell has shown an increased level of physicality on the block this season, but he’s also continued to display some mid-range shooting touch. In scoring a game-high 16 points, Liddell was 6 for 9 from the floor and perfect on four free-throw attempts.

Five of his six baskets were officially classified as jump shots, a part of his game Liddell said he modeled after his favorite player.

“Growing up, I always used to watch Kobe Bryant,” he said. “That was my favorite player. In the back of my head, I yell ‘Kobe’ in my head. That’s just me.”

They don’t always go in, though, and Liddell said he feels it when he misses.

“Every time I yell Kobe in my head I think it’s going in,” he said. “I feel like when I miss, I feel like I fail him.”

Home away from home

Wednesday’s game marked the second consecutive time the Buckeyes played at the Covelli Center, which is ordinarily home to the fencing, gymnastics, volleyball and wrestling programs. No more men’s basketball games are currently scheduled to be played there, but the possibility exists for more out of necessity for the athletic department.

Sunday, both the men’s and women’s basketball teams played at Covelli because the men’s hockey team, which also calls Value City Arena home, hosted Michigan State for a weekend series. Thursday and Friday, the men’s hockey team will also host Wisconsin for a series, and both the men’s and women’s basketball teams played Wednesday at Covelli again in order to save costs.

Holtmann said he was asked to return to the venue to save the athletic department, which is operating on a projected $107 million budget deficit for the current financial year due to COVID-19 fallout, the cost of converting Value City Arena from hockey to basketball to hockey to basketball again within the span of a week.

“I think we’re going to be back in the Schott (from now on),” Holtmann said after the game. “Now if they call and say there’s a scheduling conflict, we’ll come back here, but I believe we’ll be back in the Schott. Looking forward to it.”

St. John Arena, the program's former home, is not an option because it is currently being used as a training center during the pandemic.

Standing out

All five Ohio State starters scored in double figures and Ahrens came one point shy of getting there. Spradlin was asked who concerned him as he prepared for Ohio State.

“I thought Sueing, he was really special the first couple games,” the coach said. “He’s really efficient. He’s a big, long, athletic, multi-talented guard. For me, I think it starts with CJ Walker. I think CJ’s terrific. I told our guys he’s going to be the toughest point guard we play all year. Great mentality. Runs the team well. He can make shots. He really can guard the ball.

“CJ is a big catalyst for what Chris’ team is going to be able to do.”

Quotable

“I don’t think there’s any question we’re a work in progress, more than in any of our four years here together. I think year one we had that incredible run from basically December through January where we played in a league that wasn’t near as good as it is now but we grew as the year went on and we had a lot of older guys that were our best players on that team. More than any of our four years together, I think what has to define us as a group is gradual progress because we’re not there. We’re just not quite as far along as maybe we were at this point last year. Some of that is health-related. We have a sophomore who’s certainly one of our best players. We have Justice who’s new. A lot of that is a byproduct of some of that stuff.” – Holtmann

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