What were Ohio State's best lineups last season?

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
The Ohio State bench celebrates after a three-pointer from forward Justice Sueing against Illinois State on Nov. 25.

The Ohio State men’s basketball team used 349 different lineup combinations consisting solely of scholarship players during the 2020-21 season.

I counted.

A roster that entered the preseason with 13 members lost one player (Abel Porter) before the start of the season and added another mid-season in Meechie Johnson Jr. It dealt with injuries (Ibrahima Diallo's knee, Musa Jallow's ankle, Jimmy Sotos' shoulder, CJ Walker's hand), illness (E.J. Liddell’s battle with mononucleosis), concussions (two for Kyle Young), one COVID-19 contact tracing (Jallow again) and the return of Seth Towns after two missed seasons due to injury.

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Despite the mixing and matching, the Buckeyes earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Duane Washington Jr. and Liddell are both testing their NBA draft stock, and two transfers as well as a pair of freshmen will join a roster that could return everyone save for Walker.

With all that in mind, those 349 different lineups could provide some clues as to what next season’s rotations could look like. Let’s dig in, shall we?

What was the most-used lineup of the season?

The lineup that started the season opener against Illinois State saw more playing time than any other. Featuring CJ Walker at the point, Duane Washington at shooting guard, Justice Sueing at small forward, E.J. Liddell at power forward and Kyle Young at center, this lineup started nine of the first 15 games and finished with 11 starts for the season. Of those first 15 games, Walker missed four with torn ligaments in his right hand and Liddell missed two with mono.

That lineup totaled 171:34 together.

The second-most-used lineup consisted of (1-5) Washington, Justin Ahrens, Sueing, Liddell and Young. It started a team-high 13 games and totaled 126:13 together. That lineup also led the team in Big Ten minutes played with 107:44. The only other lineup to log more than 100 Big Ten minutes was the lineup of Walker, Washington, Sueing, Liddell and Young, which totaled 100:53.

Just one other lineup totaled more than 50 minutes of playing time this season: a lineup of Walker, Washington, Jallow, Sueing and Liddell totaled 52:25 of playing time, the majority of which came in the final eight games.

Which lineup had the best plus-minus?

While on the court together, the lineup of Walker, Washington, Sueing, Liddell and Young outscored its opponents by 52 points (358 scored, 306 allowed) while also leading the team in minutes played. In Big Ten play, however, that lineup was actually outscored by seven points (188 points scored, 195 allowed).

The second-best plus-minus for the season was posted by a lightly used lineup of Ahrens, Gene Brown, Zed Key, Sueing and Walker, which was plus-16 (23 points scored, seven allowed) in only 6:04 spread across four appearances.

Which lineup had the worst plus-minus?

This is a slightly skewed statistic, because once a lineup stops performing well it doesn’t stay together long. With that in mind, during the course of the season, that dubious mark went to a lineup of Ahrens, Key, Sueing, Walker and Washington. In just one appearance together, this lineup was outscored 12-0 in 3:23 of action in a loss at Purdue to open Big Ten play. The Buckeyes were without Liddell for that game.

In Big Ten play, it goes to a lineup of Jallow, Key, Walker, Washington and Young. In only 8:04 of conference play, this lineup was outscored 22-8 (minus-14). For the season, it fared slightly better, posting a minus-10 plus-minus (20 points scored, 30 allowed) in 13:56.

What was the most-used lineup that didn’t include Walker or Jallow?

At this moment, the only two players to see more than 11 minutes of playing time to not return are Walker, who is turning pro, and Jallow, who transferred to Charlotte. Walker played the fourth-most minutes on the team despite his hand injury costing him four games, while Jallow was seventh in minutes played. Not surprisingly, their names dot most lineups, but one in particular saw significant action this season.

Ahrens, Liddell, Sueing, Washington and Young started 13 games together and totaled 126:13 together, most for a lineup without Jallow or Walker. It was also the most-used lineup in Big Ten play, totaling 107:44.

For the season, that lineup was plus-12 (231 points scored, 219 allowed). In league play, it was plus-24 (209 points scored, 185 allowed).

What lineups did well or saw the most playing time without Walker or Washington?

If Washington goes to the NBA, Ohio State will suddenly lose roughly 1,800 minutes of game action from last season, 31.9% of its total scoring and 51.2% of its assists. Simply put, Walker and Washington were the primary cogs in the Buckeye backcourt last season.

It’s not much of a surprise, then, to see that just one lineup played for more than four minutes all season without Walker or Washington (or Jallow). The most-used lineup without either player consisted of Justin Ahrens, Meechie Johnson Jr., Key, Sueing and Young, and it played together for 4:13. All of its playing time came in Big Ten play, and it scored eight points and allowed 13 (minus-5).

What was the most-used lineup that didn’t contain Walker or Liddell?

Liddell obviously played in the post and Walker in the backcourt, but together they logged roughly 1,660 minutes last season. Should Liddell leave, but Washington stay, the best lineup that didn’t include either of those two players (or Jallow) was made up of Ahrens, Key, Sueing, Washington and Young. This lineup played together for 15:20, all in Big Ten play, and was plus-2 (32 points scored, 30 allowed).

Just one other lineup fit this criteria and saw more than six minutes of playing time last season: Ahrens, Gene Brown, Key, Washington and Young played together for 8:54, all in league play, scoring 22 points and allowing eight (plus-14). Most of this came in a blowout win against Nebraska during which this lineup scored 14 points and allowed five (plus-9) in 5:54.

What was the most-used lineup without Walker, Washington or Liddell?

There is a scenario where the Buckeyes lose their top two scorers as well as three of their four most-used players, which would leave Sueing as the most-used returning player from a season ago. In that case, is there any lineup that saw meaningful action without that trio (plus Jallow)?

Ohio State used seven total lineups that didn’t include Walker, Washington, Liddell or Jallow. None of them saw more than five minutes of playing time and just one saw more than four. That lineup saw Ahrens, Johnson, Key, Sueing and Young play together for 4:13 in two Big Ten games, scoring eight points and allowing 13.

Who had the best individual plus-minus?

Plus-minus is an admittedly flawed statistic, particularly when used in small sample sizes. It’s a little more telling during the course of a full season, however, and the player with the best personal plus-minus rating was Kyle Young.

Although he missed five of the final eight games due to concussions, Young finished with a team-best plus-178 rating for the season. In other words, Ohio State outscored its opponents by 178 points when Young was on the court.

Liddell and Walker tied for the single-game lead, with each player posting a team-best plus-minus in seven games. Liddell earns a slight edge, though, because he outright led the team in seven games while Walker had six and shared one with a teammate.