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Balanced scoring is allowing Buckeyes to flourish in Big Ten

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Guard Duane Washington Jr. (4) is a scorer who can give Ohio State points in bunches, but the Buckeyes have enough balance that they don't have to rely on him.

For the previous two Ohio State men's basketball seasons, there was one name atop any scouting report that each opponent compiled. The name was underlined, in bold print, and possibly had a few gold stars drawn around it as well.

That’s what happens when you have a player in Kaleb Wesson who, through individual talent and lack of an elite supporting cast, winds up leading the team in scoring and rebounding for two consecutive seasons.

This season, in the absence of Wesson, who is now part of the NBA’s G-League with Golden State affiliate Santa Cruz, the No. 7 Buckeyes are riding high thanks to a more balanced team that is on pace to be the best offensive Ohio State team in a decade.

As it heads to Maryland for a Monday night game, there’s no one player carrying this Ohio State team. Instead, there are a number of players doing their part in a way that makes what these Buckeyes (15-4, 9-4) are doing feel sustainable.

“It’s a good observation,” coach Chris Holtmann said following Thursday’s 89-85 win at No. 8 Iowa. “I think guys are playing to their strengths. I think we have to keep doing that.”

That’s not to say that this team doesn’t have players capable of playing above their level or stepping into the spotlight. Sophomore forward E.J. Liddell is elbowing his way into the conversation for first-team all-Big Ten honors, while second-leading scorer Duane Washington Jr. has consistently proven his ability to hit big, timely shots.

Ohio State men's basketball:E.J. Liddell inspires those back home in southern Illinois while winning with the Buckeyes

At the other end of the roster, newcomers such as Zed Key and Meechie Johnson Jr. have made their occasionally limited opportunities count.

Playing against the top-rated offense in the nation on Thursday, Johnson hit a pair of first-half three-pointers to help the Buckeyes keep pace with the Hawkeyes. Key, meanwhile, chipped in eight points and seven rebounds in only 14 minutes.

“You look at a guy like Meechie Johnson (against Iowa), he really stemmed the tide when we were on our heels a little bit with some big shots,” Holtmann said. “We had different bench guys step up. I thought we had guys do what they do.”

As the leading scorers, Washington and Liddell continue to do the heavy lifting. They’ve led the team in scoring eight and seven times, respectively, in 19 OSU games and shared the game-high honor with senior Kyle Young in the Iowa win.

But as he prepared to face the Buckeyes, Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey said it was Ohio State’s overall balance that concerned him most.

“They’re consistent,” he said. “They move the ball, share the ball. E.J.’s one of the best players in the country, I think. Now they’ve got CJ (Walker) back. That’s a help. There’s a lot of weapons there. (Justin) Ahrens is shooting the ball, Seth Towns comes off the bench, Young’s terrific, Washington.”

Players such as point guard CJ Waker (13) and transfer forward Seth Towns (31) give Ohio State the kind of scoring depth that make opponents wary.

In that win, Liddell, Young and Washington all had 16 points. Ahrens hit three second-half threes to give Ohio State enough cushion to win, and Walker dished out a career-high nine assists.

Towns remains a work in progress as he attempts to find his form after offseason knee surgery. He posted a message to Twitter after he went scoreless against the Hawkeyes that said, “By far the toughest season I’ve ever had individually battling the volatility of my knee, but playing with this team is legitimately some of the most fun I’ve ever had.”

And when everyone does their part, it adds up to a team that is continuing to climb in the national rankings as well as the Big Ten standings.

“That helps us so much, the depth we’ve got, because it’s really hard to scout us,” Ahrens said after the Iowa win. “We’ve got nine, 10 guys coming in and making contributions each game. Other teams, they’ve got to be real locked into the scouting report.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

Ohio State at Maryland

When: 9 p.m. Monday

TV: Fox Sports One

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