With E.J. Liddell in, Duane Washington out, here are five thoughts on Ohio State's roster

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

The roster, after nearly four months of waiting, is finally set. When E.J. Liddell announced his intention to withdraw from the NBA draft and prolific scoring guard Cedric Russell transferred in from Louisiana, the final dominoes were in place for the Ohio State men’s basketball team

Because of last year’s pandemic-induced schedule changes, underclassmen had clear until July 7 to decide to return to college and retain their eligibility. That’s nearly a month and a half later than the deadline in 2019, and it meant the Buckeyes were among a lengthy list of schools that had been waiting on decisions from key players since March. In the final week, they finally got answers as Duane Washington Jr. announced he will head to the professional world. Russell will help to fill the void that leaves, and Liddell will return for a third season.

Now, Chris Holtmann and his coaching staff can definitively plan for the 2021-22 season, and there’s a lot that will need to be sorted out. The roster stands at 14 scholarship players, eight of whom are in at least their fourth year of eligibility.

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Ohio State men's basketball coach Chris Holtmann has options, but no clear answers yet, on which guards will see playing time in 2021-22.

With the ink now finally drying on the list of names, here’s a few questions about what the Buckeyes will look like.

1. Who are the Buckeye guards?

For a team with so much experience returning, the backcourt is short on players who contributed significantly this past season for the Buckeyes. In addition to being the team’s leading scorer at 16.4 points per game, Washington led in minutes played, too, starting all 31 games. He was on the court 119 minutes longer than any of his teammates during the 2020-21 campaign.

Most of the time, he was playing alongside CJ Walker. Walker, despite missing four games with torn ligaments in his right hand, still finished fourth in minutes played, and together, he and Washington accounted for 28.8% of Ohio State’s total minutes.

Penn State transfer Jamari Wheeler, a two-time Big Ten all-defensive team selection, averaged a career-high 31.2 minutes per game as a fourth-year player at Penn State. He will factor in heavily. Jimmy Sotos, entering his fifth season, played in only 12 games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury during Ohio State's Jan. 9 win over Rutgers. After graduating high school a year early and joining OSU midseason, Meechie Johnson Jr. totaled 99:33 of playing time in 17 appearances.

The team's newest addition, Russell, averaged a team-best 17.2 points per game as a senior while shooting 40.0% (76 for 190) from three. He averaged 7.3 attempts from deep.

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Freshman Malaki Branham, Ohio’s Mr. Basketball as a senior, will get a serious look. Forward Justice Sueing, who filled in at the point when Walker and Sotos were both out with injuries, could also be an option. Justin Ahrens, who logged a career-best 564:22 of playing time, should factor in at shooting guard. But this will be arguably the biggest riddle for Holtmann to solve in order for Ohio State to have a strong season.

2. What about the rotation down low?

In Liddell, the Buckeyes gladly welcome back a first-team all-Big Ten forward who blossomed as a sophomore, averaging 16.2 points and a team-best 6.7 rebounds in 29.3 minutes per game. He’s the first Ohio State player with eligibility to return after being a first-team all-league pick since Aaron Craft, who was honored in 2013 for what he accomplished as a junior.

He'll be a power forward. It’s the position Liddell is likely to play at the next level, where his 6-7, 242-pound frame would prevent him from being a center. That spot will instead be filled by a combination of players. There's sixth-year Butler/Indiana product Joey Brunk and second-year player Zed Key, who averaged 5.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in only 11.7 minutes per game.

Liddell teamed with Kyle Young down low for much of last season. With the Buckeyes trading sheer size for skill, both benefitted statistically, even as multiple concussions forced a premature end to Young’s season. Young will be back as a fifth-year player.

Sixth-year Harvard transfer Seth Towns has his eye on a fully healthy season and could improve on his 11.0 minutes per game.

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3. His scoring is one thing, but Duane Washington didn’t turn it over much for as many minutes as he logged.

It’s easy to merely look at Washington’s shooting numbers, his tangible offensive production, which showed up in the box scores. After all, he took 29.4% of the team’s shots when he was on the court, the 97th highest rate in the nation according to KenPom.com.

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But just as important is the fact that, for as much as he did on the offensive end, Washington didn’t turn the ball over a lot. Among Ohio State's ballhandlers, Washington had one of the best turnover rates (15.3), and despite the fact that the natural shooting guard ultimately assumed some point guard responsibilities, he finished with just 67 giveaways.

Meanwhile, Wheeler had a turnover rate of 23.2 at Penn State and Russell was at 18.0 at Louisiana. 

4. Where do the two NBA draft decisions impact the Ohio State bottom line?

Factoring in the losses of Washington, Walker, Musa Jallow (transfer to Charlotte) and Ibrahima Diallo (transfer to San Jose State), here is what the Buckeyes have returning from a season ago:

  • 64.9% of their scoring
  • 64.6% of their minutes played
  • 44.6% of their assists
  • 77.9% of their rebounds
  • 59.1% of their threes

Those numbers are considerably lower than if both Liddell and Washington returned. In that case Ohio State would have brought back:

  • 86.1% of its scoring
  • 80.4% of its minutes played
  • 66.7% of its assists
  • 87.1% of its rebounds
  • 94.4% of its threes

It still beats the world where both Liddell and Washington had headed to the pros. Had that happened, the Buckeyes would have returned:

  • 45.3% of their scoring
  • 51.0% of their minutes played
  • 31.8% of their assists
  • 60.9% of their rebounds
  • 48.4% of their threes

5. How much more can E.J. Liddell produce?

They aren’t exact comparisons, but there are a pair of recent examples that could give some idea of what Liddell might be able to provide as a third-year player.

In 2009, Evan Turner opted to return for a third season with Ohio State after averaging 17.3 points and 7.1 rebounds in a breakout sophomore year. He turned that into a national player of the year award as a junior, averaging 20.4 points and 9.2 rebounds before becoming a first-round draft pick.

Three years later, Deshaun Thomas also had a decision to make after averaging 15.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game as a sophomore. He returned, averaged 19.8 and 5.9, respectively, as a junior before leaving for the pros. Neither player had averaged double digits in scoring as freshmen.

Liddell fits that model, going from 6.7 points and 3.8 rebounds per game to his breakout sophomore season numbers. Turner did it by increasing his overall shooting percentage each year and by increasing the number of shots he took from his sophomore to junior seasons by an average of 3.1 per game. Thomas, the ninth-leading scorer in program history, fired up 32.2% of the team's shots taken while he was on the floor during the 2012-13 season, the highest mark in the KenPom era that dates back to 2001-02.

Turner got more proficient. Thomas shot more. There’s no one path to get there, but it is possible for Liddell to increase his production.



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