As Big Ten play begins, here are four key questions for Ohio State men's basketball

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann is relying on guard Duane Washington Jr. for veteran presence and production this season.

There is no doubt that the level of competition is about to increase significantly for the Ohio State men's basketball team. Undefeated through five games, four of which came against mid- to low-major competition, the No. 20 Buckeyes open Big Ten play Wednesday at Purdue.

The game is the first of 21 currently on the schedule that, except for one against Nebraska, are against teams ranked in the top 70 nationally, according to KenPom.com. The Big Ten is projected to place 10 teams in the NCAA Tournament in Joe Lunardi’s bracket forecast, updated Tuesday. Seven of those teams are ranked in the top 25, with Iowa and Michigan State ranked Nos. 3 and 4, respectively, in what is expected to be the toughest and deepest league in the nation.

It’s a league that has beaten up the Buckeyes the past two years after promising starts in nonconference play. This year, Ohio State’s five wins are against teams with an average KenPom ranking of 212.2.

“I’m super excited to take this next step,” junior guard Duane Washington Jr. said. “I think we’re ready to go and show how good we really are and how successful we’re going to be in these next couple of months.”

How successful? Here are four questions that could determine how Ohio State's Big Ten experiences will go this season.

Can they score inside?

In 11 nonconference games last season, against teams with an average KenPom ranking of 163.4, the Buckeyes shot 54.4% (184 for 338) from two-point range. This year, that number is at 49.5% (93 for 188), which ranks them 159th nationally.

So Ohio State is shooting roughly 5% worse from inside the arc compared with last year, where they would eventually shoot 47.2% from two to finish, ironically, No. 159 overall.

The Buckeyes are leaning primarily on E.J. Liddell (6 feet 7), Kyle Young (6-8) and freshman Zed Key (6-8) to handle the low-post load, and Young in particular has struggled. After shooting 66.8% (147 for 220) from two-point range over his past two seasons as a starter, Young is at 40.0% (8 for 20) this season.

Purdue will provide some quick answers. The Boilermakers boast 7-4, 285-pound freshman Zach Edey and 6-10, 265-pound junior Trevion Williams in their frontcourt. But this could be a question that lingers for OSU.

Is the free-throw rate sustainable?

Although the offense has occasionally bogged down this season and the perimeter shooting has been suspect at times, the Buckeyes have managed to navigate those shortcomings by getting to the free-throw line at a high rate. Ohio State is scoring 26.1% of its points from the line, the 19th-highest mark in the nation. It also is the highest for the Buckeyes in the KenPom era, which dates back to the 2001-02 season.

And when the Buckeyes get to the line, they’re making their shots. Ohio State is shooting a Big Ten-best 77.8% and has three of the league’s nine best free-throw shooters in CJ Walker (leading the league at 96.8%), Washington (fifth at 92.9%) and Liddell (ninth at 81.8%). That means that, when healthy, Ohio State’s two primary ball-handlers and post weapon are also elite free-throw shooters.

Foul shooting has been crucial in late-game situations as the Buckeyes have closed out close wins against UMass Lowell, Notre Dame and Cleveland State.

Will the stars be stars?

After Sunday’s win against a scrappy Cleveland State team that brought plenty of physicality to an Ohio State team playing its first game without Liddell, who missed the game because of mononucleosis, coach Chris Holtmann pointed out the need for his leading players to play at a high level every night.

On this year’s team, that includes the five traditional starters but especially Washington, forward Justice Sueing and Walker. All three are at least past the midpoint of their collegiate careers and are being counted on to be consistent, veteran presences at both ends of the court.

Their impact was especially felt in the six-point win against Cleveland State, against which Sueing and Washington entered the game as Ohio State’s top two available scorers but combined to go 7 for 22 (31.8%) from the floor, including 2 for 9 (22.2%) from three-point range, while combining for 26 points.

Walker had 16 points, giving him 11 straight in double figures dating to last season, but his three-point shooting percentage is down to a career-low 28.6%.

With Liddell out, such a performance could spell doom against a Big Ten opponent.

“We need to figure out a group that we can consistently rely on, even when you have an illness like E.J.’s,” Holtmann said after the game.

What is the full picture?

During the summer, the plan was for Liddell to be a key player on the post, Harvard transfer Seth Towns to be working his way back to his old self through game action and the rest of the roster congealing into a versatile, semi-positionless unit.

Instead, the Buckeyes are waiting for Towns to make his debut. Musa Jallow missed two games after taking a medical redshirt last season. Liddell missed Sunday’s game and is day-to-day going forward. Young has been somewhat limited with an ankle injury.

On Tuesday, Holtmann described his team’s overall health as good, not great, but improving.

Simply put, what this team might look like in a month or two could be drastically different from what it looks like now.

“We knew going into the season we were going to have to figure some of those things out,” Holtmann said. “Now with a key injury (Liddell's illness) we’re still a little bit learning on the fly. Whenever we can have a full group together, that’ll take some figuring out as well.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

Point guard CJ Walker has been deadly from the free-throw line (96.8%) but anemic from three-point range (28.6%).

Ohio State at Purdue

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)