With Ohio State football done, here are five things to know about the men's hoops team
It took until the final game for football season to come to an end for Ohio State. With Monday night’s loss to Alabama in the national championship game, the Buckeyes fell short of the ultimate goal while navigating an unprecedented season that nearly happened for them and their Big Ten brethren.
Today, January 12, 2021, is the first official day of the offseason for Ohio State football. The next game isn’t scheduled for 233 days, but the men’s basketball team will continue play in what looks to be the deepest conference in America on Wednesday night when Northwestern (which was ranked earlier this season!) comes to Value City Arena to play No. 21 Ohio State.
If you’ve been following along all along, hopefully you still find this entertaining. Either way, here are five things you should know about the 2020-21 Buckeyes if you’re just now planning to tune in.
1. Enjoy the Duane Washington Jr. experience
He leads the team in scoring. He leads the team in shots taken and is among the top 200 nationally in percentage of shots taken while he’s on the court. He’s got a flair for the dramatic that will lead to forced shots and turnovers to a degree that coach Chris Holtmann said “will send me to an early death.”
And yet, there’s no denying that the junior guard is a must-watch player and is emerging as the go-to option when someone needs to make a big shot. After averaging 7.0 points as a freshman and 11.5 as a sophomore, Washington is at 15.1 after his 17-point effort in last Saturday’s win at No. 15 Rutgers.
Efficiency is the key for Washington, who in a depleted backcourt is being counted on to supply offense. He’s 57 for 149 (38.3%) from the floor overall and 34 for 88 (38.6%) from three, but in his last three games he is 18 for 37 (48.6%) from the floor and 12 for 22 (54.5%) from three.
He’ll still take a shot or two (or three) each game that undoubtedly raises Holtmann’s blood pressure, but he’s Ohio State’s most explosive offensive threat. It’s why, despite having gone 1 for 8 from the floor in what would be a one-point loss at Northwestern, Holtmann drew up a play for Washington to get the final shot – and his contested layup in the final seconds just rimmed out.
2. Anybody got an extra point guard?
The point guard position is arguably the most important in college basketball, where having a capable, veteran option to handle the ball, initiate the offense and steady the team is often the difference between an early NCAA Tournament loss and a deep run. It’s also why Holtmann routinely put his team’s chances for success in the hands of CJ Walker when he discussed the Buckeyes during the offseason.
Now, one of those hands is one of a line of injuries that have thinned out the depth chart at that position. Walker’s overall production had lagged behind where it was last season, where he took over the job full-time during the final 11 games and cemented himself as an upper-level Big Ten point guard as Ohio State went 8-3 during that stretch.
Through 11 games this season, Walker led the team in minutes but clearly wasn’t himself. Further testing revealed torn ligaments in his right, non-shooting hand, and last weekend’s game against the Scarlet Knights was the first of possibly many that the Buckeyes played without him. It’s unclear at the moment when – or if – he will return this season.
In his place, Bucknell transfer Jimmy Sotos filled in admirably for the first 36 minutes of the game before exiting in obvious pain after suffering an injury to his right shoulder. On his radio show Monday, Holtmann said Sotos was still being evaluated and offered no definitive word on his availability going forward other than to describe him as “a game-time decision” for the Northwestern game.
Sotos initially wasn’t supposed to play this season. The Buckeyes applied for a waiver on his behalf after Utah State graduate transfer Abel Porter had his career ended with a diagnosis of a heart condition. Otherwise, Porter was in line to play roughly 20 minutes per game.
It’s thinned out enough that freshman Meechie Johnson Jr., who reclassified to the 2020 class, graduated early and joined the team in mid-December, was just cleared for full practice participation last week and made his debut in the Rutgers win.
3. The Big Ten is loaded
There isn’t a coach in college basketball who won’t brag on the level of competition within his league and proclaim how there are no easy wins and that any team can beat any other on any given night.
The numbers bear out that this season, Big Ten coaches will be telling the most truth. Six teams are ranked in the Associated Press poll: Iowa (5), Michigan (7), Wisconsin (9), Illinois (14), Ohio State (21) and Minnesota (23). Last week, Rutgers and Michigan State were also ranked. Five teams are in the top 20 in the KenPom.com rankings, 12 are in the top 50 and everyone but woeful Nebraska is in the top 60, ranking it as the best conference in America according to the website.
Nine Big Ten teams are among the top 40 in the NCAA’s NET rankings, which are used for NCAA Tournament seeding decisions. And in Tuesday’s updated bracketology, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projects 10 Big Ten teams to reach the NCAA Tournament with Maryland and Northwestern among the first four out.
4. Bullyball is working
On a roster devoid of a true center, Ohio State is finding success playing through its two post players in senior Kyle Young and sophomore E.J. Liddell.
After showing flashes last season, Liddell is blossoming into a true talent and is second on the team at 14.0 points per game, more than double his freshman average of 6.7. He was slowed by a battle with mononucleosis that cost him two games including a Big Ten opener at Purdue where he was sorely missed, but he has scored in double figures in eight of the 10 games he has played this season.
Young has seen some harder going than his last two seasons, where he was able to play more off of Kaleb Wesson and find ways to create his own offense while taking advantage of opponents focusing more on Wesson. He’s shooting a career-low 54.1% from two-point range but has gone 20 for 32 (62.5%) during his last five games. He also just slightly trails Liddell in rebounding average, 6.4 per game to 6.3.
Liddell is 6-7, 240 pounds. Young is 6-8, 225. Behind their contributions, though, Ohio State is second in the Big Ten in offensive rebounding at 12.1 per game and fourth in overall rebounding margin at plus-5.8 per game.
It’s not been perfect. Minnesota’s 7-foot center Liam Robbins feasted on the Buckeyes, finishing with 27 points and 14 rebounds during a 77-60 Golden Gophers win on January 3. High effort levels are key, and the Buckeyes have to outwork, out-tough and out-battle opponents that bring a nightly height advantage to the game
Oh, and don’t miss freshman Zed Key. He’s the primary backup and has averaged 6.9 points and 3.9 rebounds in only 13.8 minutes per game while bringing energy and, yes, “finger guns” to the game.
5. Learn a lot of names
Prior to the Walker and Sotos injuries, Holtmann was essentially using an 11-man rotation that stretched deeper than he would typically be comfortable with. At no point was that more on display than a 77-60 loss at Minnesota on January 3 when the Buckeyes utilized a season-high 27 different lineups, 16 of which were brand new.
This is a team without a lot of separation in talent level, and that has meant decisions on playing time have been anything but black and white. Eleven players are averaging at least 8.7 minutes per game, and Harvard graduate transfer Seth Towns is the lowest among the bunch but working his way into a bigger role after missing the last two seasons with a knee injury.
The issue is that with the level of depth on the roster, which combinations do or don’t work might have as much to do with the opponent as anything. This remains a team that needs to be better than the sum of its parts in order to keep pace in the Big Ten, which has led to more mixing and matching while trying to maximize any mismatches the Buckeyes can exploit.
This likely won’t continue throughout the season. At some point, Holtmann will trim the rotation closer to eight or nine players and figure out which lineups to ride with when things are tough. For now, though, it’s very much a work in progress on a roster where five of those 11 players weren’t playing for Ohio State last season.