Five pressing issues as Ohio State men's basketball navigates the offseason

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
There are a handful of areas where coach Chris Holtmann will be seeking improvement for his basketball team next season, including interior defense and more consistent offense.

There’s no sugarcoating how the season ended for the Ohio State men’s basketball team.

The first top-10 finish in the regular season in eight years came up four points shy of a Big Ten tournament championship and culminated in only the ninth first-round upset of a No. 2 seed by a No. 15 seed in NCAA Tournament history when Oral Roberts stunned the Buckeyes in overtime on March 19.

That loss abruptly plunged a program seemingly poised for a postseason breakthrough into an offseason with some hard self-evaluation to come and decisions to make. Players will weigh their professional options, the transfer portal seems to include a name or two from every team in college basketball and yet the pieces remain for what should be a strong team next season.

Provided, of course, that the Buckeyes address their issues. Here are five of the most pressing ones on coach Chris Holtmann’s plate.

Add a big – somehow

Ohio State’s lack of a true post player became a point of contention for Holtmann as he was continually asked about it throughout the season. He would respond by pointing out that the versatility of veterans such as Kyle Young (6 feet 8, 225 pounds) and E.J. Liddell (6-7, 240) created mismatches on the offensive end, and he was right.

And yet, the physical toll of battling against the Big Ten’s rotating cast of bigs took its toll on the duo. Young has not been able to physically hold up to the demands of the position during his three years as a starter, missing time late in seasons because of leg injuries or, this year, multiple concussions.

Liddell, meanwhile, shot 6 for 22 (27.3%) from three-point in five postseason games after going 21 for 58 (36.2%) to that point. And though he pulled down 14 rebounds in the Oral Roberts loss, it ended a streak of seven straight single-digit rebounding games for the team’s leading glass cleaner.

Ohio State's Zed Key (23) and Kyle Young (25) provided good moments of inside play, but neither gives the Buckeyes the consistent inside presence they need.

Zed Key, listed at 6-8, 245, will expect to see his role grow as a sophomore, but the need for a more traditional post player to help lighten the load on all parties — especially if Young returns — seems paramount.

The Buckeyes are in the running for a pair of five-star recruits in Chet Holmgren and Efton Reid, and they’ve been linked with Penn State transfer John Harrar, who at 6-9, 240 pounds, had 15 points and 10 rebounds at Ohio State last season.

A true big wouldn’t have been much help against a team like Oral Roberts, which plays a style best suited for a versatile player such as Young. But lessening the wear and tear on others during the gauntlet of a Big Ten season makes this need hugely important.

Navigate the draft process

At least two players figure to submit their names to become eligible for the NBA draft, a process that allows players to receive feedback about their pro stock without compromising NCAA eligibility. Liddell, a first-team all-Big Ten selection, and guard Duane Washington Jr., a third-team pick, both figure to at least test the waters.

This isn’t uncharted territory. Kaleb Wesson went through the process as a sophomore, returned for his junior season and left after leading the team in scoring and rebounding for a second straight season while being named second-team all-Big Ten. He credited the feedback he received from his workouts for helping him cut weight, improve his speed and post a better shooting season as a junior.

Ohio State's two leading scorers, guard Duane Washington Jr. (4) and forward E.J. Liddell (32) may seek feedback on their chances of being selected in the NBA draft.

Washington led OSU at 16.4 points per game, marking the third straight year his output increased. The same went for his assist (2.9) and rebounding (3.4) averages, as well as his shooting percentage (41.0%). Liddell blossomed, going from 6.7 points per game as a freshman to 16.2 as a sophomore while emerging as a viable outside shooting threat.

Neither player appears on any current major mock drafts, and it’s unclear what the pre-draft process will look like due to COVID. But of the 12 underclassmen named first-team all-Big Ten since 2014-15 who decided to return, nine played for a team that either improved its win total or advanced deeper into the tournament.

Ohio State basketball:If Buckeyes all return, 'it'll be pretty hard to beat us,' E.J. Liddell says

Settle the point

Assuming he returns, Washington again slots into a primary role in Ohio State’s backcourt. The bigger question is who will join him now that CJ Walker is getting his professional career underway after running the point for the past two seasons.

Buckeyes basketball:Often unsung, Ohio State senior CJ Walker quietly gives peace of mind to Buckeyes

There are two primary in-house options. The Buckeyes landed Bucknell transfer Jimmy Sotos last year with the idea to have him redshirt for the 2020-21 season, acclimate to the program and be ready to step in as a fifth-year senior. Those plans changed when graduate transfer Abel Porter was diagnosed with a career-ending heart condition early in the preseason, eventually leading to a waiver that gained Sotos immediate eligibility.

Meechie Johnson Jr. (0) helped Ohio State's depth at point guard by joining the team in December, but he played few minutes as CJ Walker ran the show down the stretch.

It also led to Meechie Johnson Jr.'s decision to graduate early from high school, reclassify to the 2020 class, join the team in December and take advantage of the free year of eligibility. Both took a backseat to Walker: Sotos averaged 1.7 points in 12 games, including two starts, before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury and Johnson averaged 1.2 points in 5.9 minutes in 17 appearances off the bench.

Freshman Malaki Branham, who scored 37 points in the Division II state championship game to lead Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary to a state title, will be an immediate impact player in the backcourt, and Washington has proven himself capable of scoring and distributing. But someone else needs to be ready to handle significant minutes at point guard.

Defense, anyone?

The biggest reason to doubt Ohio State’s ability to put together a deep postseason run stemmed from its inability to stop other teams from scoring. The Buckeyes finished fourth in adjusted efficiency, according to KenPom.com, scoring 120.3 points per 100 possessions, but its defensive mark of 96.9 points allowed per 100 possessions was the worst in the Holtmann era and second-worst since Thad Matta took over in 2004.

It was a fatal flaw on a gifted offensive team. Some of it stemmed from the lack of true size at the rim, but the Buckeyes also struggled to create turnovers. Ohio State forced a turnover on 14.7% of its defensive possessions, its lowest mark in the KenPom era that dates back to the 1996-97 season.

The 2020-21 Buckeyes lost their three top defenders — Luther Muhammad (transfer to Arizona State), Andre Wesson (graduate) and Kaleb Wesson (professional) — and could not overcome that with their collective play. Holtmann frequently referenced a lack of “bite” when it came to ball pressure, and most recently Oral Roberts showed how talented teams could exploit Ohio State’s ball screen coverages for easy buckets.

After the loss to the Golden Eagles, Holtmann said improving the team’s defense will be the top priority in the offseason. If everyone returns, including Young, the Buckeyes would bring back 89.3% of their scoring. They have to be better at stopping other teams.

Get easier shots more consistently

Ohio State finished with its best adjusted offensive efficiency rating since the 2010-11 season despite an offense that would break down for significant stretches of games, perhaps best demonstrated in the Oral Roberts loss. After scoring 17 points in the first six minutes, the Buckeyes scored only nine in the next 10 minutes as the Golden Eagles weathered a stretch of missing 14 of 15 shots and actually built a lead.

In these periods, Holtmann often would cite the ball being “stuck” on one side of the floor for too long. Occasionally, Liddell, Washington or even Seth Towns would knock down a jumper, but the Buckeyes would go long stretches without getting high-percentage looks.

An occasional lack of ball movement played a big part. The Buckeyes assisted on 49.6% of their baskets this season, the lowest mark in the Holtmann era and second-lowest for the program since the 2000-01 season.

Some of that falls on the point guard position, but it also illustrates the need for more consistent scoring options to help relieve some of the pressure from Liddell and Washington.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy