Ohio State hoops different, 'not better' with Justice Sueing in place of CJ Walker

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Injured Ohio State guards CJ Walker, left, and Jimmy Sotos are getting better, but their returns remain up in the air.

The last three games have not been what Justice Sueing signed up for at Ohio State. The same goes for Justin Ahrens, Meechie Johnson Jr. and more of their fellow Buckeyes who have stepped into new or expanded roles while the wins keep piling up.

Saturday, Ohio State won its third straight game without senior point guard CJ Walker. It was also its second straight game without backup Jimmy Sotos, and it’s unclear when either will be back in the lineup.

Now up to No. 15 in Monday’s Associated Press poll and climbing in the Big Ten standings, the Buckeyes have run off a stretch of wins with Sueing at the point, Johnson pitching in and Ahrens seeing the most consistent, high-level minutes of his career.

Given that the results have all been wins, coach Chris Holtmann stopped short Monday of saying that the team’s offense is better without its two primary ball handlers.

“I just think we’ve looked different,” Holtmann said as he looked ahead to Tuesday's home game with Purdue. “I would not say better. We’ve played well offensively. Our numbers defensively haven’t been quite as good, but we’ve just looked different with Justice handling the ball.”

Ohio State’s starting lineup for the last two games — with Sueing at the point, Duane Washington Jr. at shooting guard, Ahrens on the wing and E.J. Liddell and Kyle Young down low — has scored and allowed 63 points during wins against Northwestern and Illinois. Prior to those games, it was a lineup that had seen a total of 2:21 of playing time together this season.

In the wins against the Wildcats and Fighting Illini, the Buckeyes have topped 80 points in consecutive times for the only time this season. The Illinois win also marked Ohio State’s second-highest offensive efficiency rating in Big Ten play this season, trailing the 36-point win against bottom-feeder Nebraska on Dec. 30.

From the sidelines, Walker in particular has been active as a player-coach. Holtmann called him an assistant coach after the Illinois win, when he could clearly be heard calling out defensive coverages and Illinois game plans to help his teammates.

“That’s something that really helps you on defense,” Ahrens told The Dispatch after the game. “He’s always been a really good leader and keeping the team together. He’s still bought in and attributing that to the team.”

Walker has also struggled this season offensively while dealing with torn ligaments in his right, nonshooting hand. As it affected his ability to make plays on the court, the Ohio State offense also felt some of that loss.

Sueing has brought a different set of pluses and minuses to the court. Although blessed with more size, Sueing has never been a team’s primary ball handler before in his career, and that has shown at times. During the last two games, he has five assists and six turnovers, five of which came against the Illini.

Walker, too, brings elite free-throw shooting capabilities: he is 42 for 43 (97.7%) this season, a skill the Buckeyes could have used while fending off late runs by each of their last two opponents.

Holtmann said Walker’s hand will be evaluated Tuesday, prior to the game against the Boilermakers, but he will not play in the game. Sotos remains day-to-day with his shoulder injury, Holtmann said, based on how it is feeling. Both players did some light ball work and dribbling at the State Farm Center during warmups Saturday.

One or both could be back before long, and should that happen, the Buckeyes will readjust back to life pre-injuries. And they will have a few more potential options at their disposal.

“I think the addition of Justice playing the point guard and Justin being out there and Meechie providing some burst and athleticism and quickness and scoring has been welcomed,” Holtmann said, “because it’s certainly what’s been needed in light of our point guards having injuries.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

Purdue at Ohio State

When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday

TV: Big Ten Network

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