Exhibition gives glimpse into growth of Buckeyes' young backcourt options
Malaki Branham was about three minutes into his unofficial college debut when he got the ball to near the right block. With his grandmother, mother and uncle all cheering from the stands, the first-year Ohio State guard went up for his first shot in Monday night’s exhibition game against the University of Indianapolis.
He never got quite there. Senior Greyhounds wing Cory Miller Jr. stripped the ball, welcoming the newbie to the stage and sending both teams back upcourt.
But then Branham did what has the Ohio State coaching staff so bullish about his chance to be a significant contributor this season. After running back on defense, Branham got the ball on the next offensive possession, drove from the right wing and scored in the paint. One possession later, he swished a 3-pointer from the left wing to push the Ohio State lead to 18-9. Finally, the 6-foot-4 Branham used his 6-10 wingspan to help the Buckeyes force a shot-clock violation, pressuring his man into an airball at the buzzer.
Get used to it, Buckeyes fans. Monday’s 82-46 win against Indianapolis provided plenty of public evidence that, while the kids might be all right in Ohio State’s revamped backcourt, there will be some bumps along the way.
Branham finished with 10 points on 3-of-9 shooting with two assists, a turnover and a rebound in 19:49. Second-year guard Meechie Johnson Jr. started and finished with 12 points, five rebounds, two assists and one turnover in 18:12. Leading scorer Gene Brown III, who had 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting with seven rebounds, one steal and some solid defense in 21:13, is also in his second season.
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All of them saw game action before a pair of fifth-year guards: Jimmy Sotos and Cedric Russell.
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“Meechie’s had some flashes of some really good play,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “He’s had some other moments where he’s got to continue to read the game or he gets playing a little too fast, which is normal. He’s a freshman. This is his first full year. We’re gonna have to play through that with him and Malaki in particular, as well as some of the growing pains with Zed (Key) and Gene and some of those younger guys.”
Monday marked the most extended playing time for Johnson since his sophomore year of high school. After missing his junior year with a torn ACL in his right knee, Johnson graduated high school early, joined the Buckeyes in December and took advantage of the extra year of eligibility afforded to all players by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 17 appearances last season, he totaled 99:33 of playing time.
Johnson logged 18:12 against the Greyhounds, showing an ability to attack the basket and a more complete game than he did a season ago.
“I’m an aggressive player, but I’m not a selfish player,” he said. “I’m always looking to get my teammates involved, but I’m also looking to score. I try to make the best play and do what my team needs to do to win.”
That is going to occasionally test the patience of Holtmann, who is known to be demanding of his point guards in particular. Brown said there is one primary rule Holtmann has instilled in his players: mistakes can be forgiven, but a lack of effort cannot.
“Effort overcomes mistakes,” Brown said. “We allow each other to make those mistakes and play through them.”
Brown presents an intriguing profile. His defensive capabilities allowed him to earn a few minutes each game last season, but he finished with 35 points in 29 appearances. Monday, he did a little bit of everything, from a steal-and-slam to hitting back-to-back threes early in the second half.
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They all will get tested anew when Akron comes to town for Tuesday's season opener, and in every game beyond that.
“As far as being on the court, we’re not that full experienced but we know what it takes to win and what it takes to get there,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day, we’ve got each others’ backs. Young or old, we’re just gonna go out there and play like it’s our last game.”
And they’re just getting started.
OSU gets commitment
George Washington III, a 6-2,165-pound guard from Louisville (Ky.) Christian Academy, became the first member of the 2023 recruiting class to commit to Ohio State. Washington is the No. 50 national recruit, the No. 2 player from Kentucky and the No. 9 combo guard in the nation according to the 247Sports.com. Louisville, Tennessee, Auburn and Liberty are known to have also offered.