Analysis: Which Ohio State lineups worked against Akron?
It wasn’t until the final buzzer sounded that No. 17 Ohio State could breathe a sigh of relief. In Tuesday night’s season opener against Akron, the Buckeyes needed a bucket from Zed Key with less than a second remaining to lift them past the Zips, 67-66, at Value City Arena.
The first game with fans since the 2019-20 season wasn’t for the faint of heart. It also presented multiple challenges for coach Chris Holtmann and his staff as, for the first time, they mixed and matched lineups from a list of 11 available scholarship players. Those plans were affected by Justice Sueing’s ongoing recovery from a groin injury as well as the absence of Kyle Young as he works his way back from a vestibular dysfunction that has sidelined him throughout the preseason.
Here’s how it all unfolded, which lineups did well and which ones did not.
*The Buckeyes opened with Jamari Wheeler at point guard, Meechie Johnson Jr. at shooting guard, Justin Ahrens at small forward, E.J. Liddell at power forward and Key at center. It marked the first career start for Johnson, the second for Key and the first for Wheeler at Ohio State after spending the last four years at Penn State.
It was a slow start for the Buckeyes, who were outscored 8-6 in the first 5:32 before Holtmann made his first substitutions of the game.
*Malaki Branham made his collegiate debut with 14:28 left in the half, entering alongside Sueing in place of Johnson and Key. Ohio State would claim its first lead of the game with this lineup on the court, outscoring Akron 8-3 in the next 2:37 and causing the Zips to call timeout with 11:51 left and the Buckeyes ahead 14-11. Liddell was the center in this lineup.
*Out of the under-12 timeout, Johnson returned to the lineup and Wheeler got his first break, putting Johnson and Branham together in the backcourt. Alongside Sueing, Ahrens and Liddell still at center, Akron outscored this lineup 4-2 in 1:38 before Key returned and Liddell got a break with 10:13 left and Ohio State ahead 16-15.
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*Second-year guard Gene Brown made his season debut when he replaced Ahrens with 8:31 left in the half and Ohio State ahead 18-17. This lineup of Johnson, Branham, Brown, Sueing and Key scored two points in 27 seconds before Liddell and Wheeler returned in place of Johnson and Sueing.
*This lineup of Wheeler, Branham, Brown, Liddell and Key built the lead from 18-17 to 25-19 in the next 2:47 by outscoring Akron 5-2 before Ahrens returned in place of Brown with 5:17 left in the half.
*The Buckeyes started to pull away here. This lineup had a 5-0 run in 57 seconds, leading to an Akron timeout with 4:20 left and Ohio State now ahead 30-19.
*Two players made their Ohio State debuts out of the timeout. Joey Brunk replaced Key and Cedric Russell replaced Branham, joining Ahrens, Liddell and Wheeler. For the next 1:02, each team got a free throw before Sueing returned in place of Liddell.
*Ohio State led 31-20 with 3:18 left when Liddell picked up a second foul, He was replaced by Sueing, and this lineup of Wheeler, Russell, Ahrens, Sueing and Brunk was outscored 7-4 in the next 2:48 as Akron pulled with 35-27 with 30 seconds remaining.
*Liddell came back in here despite having two fouls, and the teams would again trade free throws in the final 30 seconds to give Ohio State a 36-28 halftime lead. The Buckeyes used 10 lineups in the first half, all of which were unique.
*It was back to the starters to open the second half, and they were outscored 9-4 in the first 3:41 before Sueing replaced Liddell with 16:19 left and Akron within 40-37.
*With Sueing in the game, Ohio State would outscore Akron 3-2 in the next 2:08 and lead 44-39 with 14:11 left when Branham and Brunk replaced Wheeler and Key to complete a lineup that also featured Johnson, Ahrens and Sueing. It would be outscored 4-1 in the next 2:40, and when he would sub out here Sueing would not return for the remainder of the game.
*With 11:31 left and Ohio State’s lead down to 44-43, Liddell and Brown returned to the game. This lineup of Johnson, Brown, Ahrens, Branham and Liddell scored six points and allowed five in 3:13 before a pair of substitutions with 8:18 left out of an Akron timeout.
*Here, it was back to a lineup of Brown, Branham, Key, Liddell and Wheeler that in an earlier shift had outscored Akron 5-2 in 2:47. This time, they were outscored by the same margin in 2:16 as the Zips took a lead at 53-52 with 6:02 to play. Here, Holtmann brought Ahrens back in for Brown, and both teams scored three points in the next 1:03 to keep the Ohio State deficit at one point.
*A new lineup of Johnson, Branham, Ahrens, Liddell and Key (the starters, minus Branham for Wheeler) then matched Akron, scoring four and allowing four, in the next 1:12 leading into the under-4 timeout with 3:47 to play and the Zips ahead 60-59.
*With the game in the balance, Holtmann then went back to the lineup of Wheeler, Branham, Ahrens, Liddell and Key. For the next 3:25, it outscored Akron 6-2 to reclaim the lead at 65-62 with 22 seconds left.
*Brown came in for Ahrens for defense to close out the game, but the Zips would get a four-point play from Ali Ali with six seconds left and pull ahead, 66-65, to set up the final possession.
*The final Ohio State lineup featured Johnson, Branham, Wheeler, Ahrens and Key and would get the winner in the final second. These were the only six seconds this lineup played together.
*Ohio State’s starting lineup was outscored 17-10 in 9:13 together. That same lineup, with Branham in place of Johnson, outscored Akron 14-5 in 5:47.
*Of his 30:09 on the court, Liddell spent 22:11 of it playing power forward with either Key or Brunk. He was at center for 7:58, and when he was there Ohio State was plus-5 (17 points scored, 12 allowed). When he was at power forward, Ohio State was outscored 38-36 (minus-2).
*Second-year freshman Johnson and first-year freshman Branham were together without Wheeler for 10:52. Ohio State was minus-2 (17 points scored, 19 allowed) during this time.
*Branham had the best individual plus-minus at plus-10.