Buckeyes in search for backcourt answers after key offseason departures

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch
Penn State transfer Jamari Wheeler's defense may give him an early edge among the talented players battling for minutes in the Ohio State men's basketball team's backcourt.

Life came at Meechie Johnson pretty fast last year.

An early graduate from high school, the guard from Garfield Heights spent what was supposed to be his senior year as a freshman learning how to play college basketball at Ohio State. Within the confines of his residence hall, Johnson said he was grateful to fellow first-year players Zed Key and Gene Brown III for helping him settle in.

On the court and outside of the dorms, though, the two Buckeyes who played key roles for Johnson were fifth-year guard CJ Walker and third-year backcourt mate Duane Washington Jr.

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“Learning from guys like CJ and Duane, I learned how to win at a high level,” Johnson said Tuesday at media day. “Those are my brothers and I love them to death.”

Those bonds might remain, but their time on the same roster ended when both players opted to pursue professional careers. Those decisions were supported by the Buckeyes, but the 2021-22 team now enters the preseason needing to replace quite a bit of experience.

Although Walker missed four games and had his minutes limited in a few others with torn ligaments in his right hand, Washington and Walker led the team in average minutes per game at 32.1 and 30.0, respectively. Together, they logged 28.8% of Ohio State’s total playing time, scored 31.9% of the team’s points and dished out 51.2% of the team’s assists.

That’s a lot of production. And in college basketball, where a solid backcourt is arguably the most vital ingredient for a successful season, the need to identify which players among a talented cast can step in was atop Ohio State’s list of priorities as it opened fall camp Thursday.

Among the newcomers is transfer Jamari Wheeler, a two-time member of the Big Ten all-defensive team and a four-year contributor at Penn State who started at least 25 games in each of the past three seasons.

“You’ve got to have a great leader that’s in the backcourt, keeping everything under control especially in the Big Ten because you are in these environments playing on the road against big teams,” Wheeler said. “Be that great leader that the team needs to be.”

After joining a team that posted its lowest adjusted defensive efficiency ranking of coach Chris Holtmann’s four seasons according to KenPom.com, Wheeler might have an early upper hand on his competition. However, his 2,892 career minutes played are topped by two other contenders for significant backcourt roles: Louisiana transfer Cedric Russell (3,316 career minutes played) and Jimmy Sotos (2,891 minutes at Bucknell, 115 last year at Ohio State, 2,936 total).

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Russell can handle the ball but primarily was a scorer at Louisiana, while Sotos said his strengths lie in his distribution and shooting.

“Cedric brings a great offensive skill set,” third-year forward E.J. Liddell said when asked about the backcourt. “Those guys, they play to win. They’re going to go out there and compete. Me and Jamari had a couple arguments, if we’re on different teams, because we compete.”

As for Johnson, he totaled 99 minutes of playing time last season in what was his first real game action since tearing the ACL in his right knee as a sophomore in high school. Although he still considers himself a freshman, he will be entering his second year at Ohio State with a legitimate opportunity to carve out a significant role.

So, too, does first-year player Malaki Branham, Ohio’s Mr. Basketball as a senior at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, and second-year guard Gene Brown III. Justin Ahrens, a fourth-year player, could also factor in at shooting guard while also spending time at small forward.

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“Each of us brings something different to the table, something different to the team,” Sotos said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. I think we’re getting each other better and whatever coach decides, once he decides roles, we’re all going to embrace (them). We’re all trying to win. That’s the main goal here.”

Wheeler said he approaches the preseason with a goal of getting 1% better each day and challenges his teammates to do the same. Sotos and Johnson, both of whom have had to labor to just get the ball up the court against him in workouts, can attest to the effort he makes everyone bring.

Johnson, who sat out the past three weeks of offseason workouts to rest his right leg and prevent stress issues as the season progresses, said he’s planning to show off his full range of skills after being so limited last year. After a shoulder injury cost him most of the season, Sotos has been lauded by teammates for his offseason shooting prowess and is hoping a full return to health will enable him to challenge for a prominent role. Brown has shaken off a scary COVID-19 battle from the spring that required two hospitalizations.

How it all fits together won’t be known for some time. As of media day, the Buckeyes had only skill work, some summer team workouts and open gym sessions to work on their chemistry and roles. That changed Thursday with the start of official practices. When coach Chris Holtmann addresses the media Oct. 7 at Big Ten media day in Indianapolis, it will mark his first real chance to publicly assess the backcourt battle.

Until at least then, it’s game on.

“It’s hard to say what people are gonna do," Johnson said. "Having depth, though, and knowing that you’ve got a lot of talented guys who can put the ball in the hoop, you can’t go wrong with that either.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy