Ohio State wins big over Bowling Green, but Justice Sueing's injury status looms over the team

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch
Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Chris Holtmann signals to the team during the first half of the NCAA basketball game against the Bowling Green Falcons at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio Nov. 15.

The vibe in the postgame interview room at Value City Arena did not match the numbers on the scoreboard.

A few minutes earlier, No. 19 Ohio State did something it hadn’t done in either of its first two game this season: put the sticks to an overmatched team. Against a Bowling Green team that was the last Ohio team to beat the Buckeyes in Columbus, the hosts had had five players score in double figures, dished out 27 assists on 36 makes and led by as many as 42 points in a decisive, 89-58 win against the Falcons.

Coaches can always find something from a blowout to temper the mood and reset the mindset of a team. But perhaps appropriately dressed in black, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann cast a solemn figure at times as he attempted to paint a picture about the status of fifth-year senior Justice Sueing.

After appearing in the first two games but clearly not looking like the player who emerged as a dynamic playmaker last season, Sueing missed the start of the game as he headed back from an appointment with a Cleveland specialist. He watched the second half in street clothes, and as Ohio State prepares to play at Xavier on Thursday it’s unclear when – or if – Sueing will return this season.

Buckeyes basketball:Justice is more than just a name for Ohio State senior forward Sueing

“No real word on him right now other than he had to be evaluated,” Holtmann said. “He was not able to play. I did not feel that he was going to be able to play, so we sent him to a specialist in Cleveland. Productive meeting, but what plan moving forward we’re going to have and if he’s going to play Thursday (at Xavier), all those questions kind of remain open-ended.”

A California transfer who sat out the 2019-20 season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules, Sueing averaged 10.5 points and 5.4 rebounds while posting the best free-throw rate on the team. With Duane Washington gone to the NBA and a number of new faces mixing to make up the Ohio State backcourt, Sueing entered the year poised to build on that success and establish himself as an all-league type of player.

But as he wound down the 2020-21 season, Sueing dealt with a groin injury that affected his mobility and effectiveness throughout the postseason. Although he would play 34 minutes in the season-ending loss to No. 15 seed Oral Roberts in the NCAA Tournament, Sueing scored only seven points and got to the line for two free-throw attempts. The belief was that rest would help, but at media day prior to the start of preseason practice Sueing said he was still working to get back to full health and declined to specify exactly what the injury was.

He started the preseason without restrictions, but Holtmann said he started to report some similar pain right before the team’s closed scrimmage against Ole Miss on Oct. 24.

“It had gotten considerably better, almost to 100% in his words, and then really right before the Ole Miss scrimmage he started to feel some of the same issues,” Holtmann said. “We’ve been managing it since then.”

Sueing sat out the exhibition game against the University of Indianapolis on Nov. 1 but came off the bench in wins against Akron and Niagara. In those two games, Sueing scored two and 10 points, respectively, but had zero assists, one turnover and only two free-throw attempts.

Asked if he was worried this could be a season-ending injury for Sueing, Holtmann said, “I don’t know right now that it’s season-ending. I think it is significant, but I don’t know what to make of that.”

Without Sueing, E.J. Liddell and Meechie Johnson Jr. each had 13 points to lead the Buckeyes past the Falcons. Gene Brown III and Zed Key each had 12 points, Justin Ahrens had 11 and Zed Key came just shy of a double-double with 12 points and nine rebounds as Holtmann emptied his bench down the stretch.

In this game, his impact wasn’t necessarily missed. Going forward, it will be.

“I’m not going to minimize the importance of Justice or Justice’s health to this team,” Holtmann said. “We certainly anticipated a healthy Justice to start the season and I think planned around all of what he could give us. He’s unique because there’s not another Justice-type player on our roster that has the ability at his size to play downhill and guard multiple positions. I’m hopeful and optimistic that we can have him and Seth (Towns) back.

“We really need those guys back. We know Seth’s timetable. We don’t know Justice’s timetable. To say it’s not a significant hit, I wouldn’t be honest. It is.”

When asked to sum up his emotions on a night where a lot of things went right but Sueing’s status loomed large, Holtmann used the word disappointed.

He used it four times.

“In a season like this there are so many things that come at you as a head coach,” Holtmann said. “You’ve got to move forward. We’ve got guys that are more than capable. We’re going to coach those guys. We’re going to get them ready. We’re going to move forward and hope that our medical staff gets Justice ready to go as soon as he’s ready.”

Kyle Young shaking off rust

After missing the exhibition and the opener, fifth-year forward Kyle Young is no longer dealing with any of the issues that his vestibular dysfunction brought on during the preseason. For him, now it’s about just getting his lungs back and returning to full stamina after so much time off.

“The issues that (he had) are better and cleared up,” Holtmann said. “That was the biggest thing holding him back and bothering him. Our medical staff did a great job with getting that better. We all know how critical he is to us. He’s 100% in terms of how he feels. He’s just got to shake the rust off. He just hasn’t had much live play, live action.”

Against the Falcons, Young finished with eight points on 4-of-5 shooting and had five rebounds, two assists and two steals in only 13:53. In a year where the lineups and rotations figure to be fluid, especially considering Sueing’s new status, Holtmann downplayed the significance of whether Young starts or comes off the bench.

Ohio State men's basketball:Kyle Young announces return with alley-oop slam dunk in Ohio State win

Young has started 65 games during the last two seasons.

“I like him starting,” Holtmann said. “I like him coming off the bench. I like him playing early. I like him playing late. I like him playing in the middle. I like him playing, so I’m not ready to make any big statements right now on what our lineup’s going to look like. With some of these super seniors, Trevion Williams is a first-team all-league guy coming off the bench. I don’t know if I’d say that’s going to be this way.

“He’ll definitely start on senior night, but it could change in a week. It could change next game.”

Jamari Wheeler leads Ohio State with five assists

After entering the game with seven assists and no turnovers through the first two games, Penn State graduate transfer Jamari Wheeler finished with five of Ohio State’s 27 assists against Bowling Green. He was one of eight Buckeyes with at least two assists, just ahead of Liddell, who had four.

Behind them, Malaki Branham, Joey Brunk, Meechie Johnson Jr. and Jimmy Sotos all had three apiece and both Gene Brown III and Young had two.

“Twenty-seven assists, 12 turnovers, outstanding offensive ball distribution, outstanding assist-to-turnover game,” Holtmann said.

Ohio State last had at least 27 assists when it hit that mark in a 94-65 win against the Citadel on Dec. 19, 2017. Brown said the Buckeyes had good ball energy against Bowling Green.

“I think our guys really share the ball,” Holtmann said. “The way (the Falcons) play defensively, the way they scramble allows for them to get in rotation a little bit. As much as anything, our guys did a really good job of making a lot of one-mores.”

Justin Ahrens surpasses older brother Kyle Ahrens

When Ahrens hit a 3-pointer only 20 seconds into the second half, it gave him 11 points for the game.

The shot also moved him one point past his older brother’s career scoring mark. In four seasons at Michigan State, Kyle Ahrens scored 355 career points. His younger brother now has 356 points three games into his fourth season with the Buckeyes.

That didn’t register much to the Ohio State captain, who also entered the game with exactly 100 career made 3-pointers.

“I saw a text from him,” Justin said of Kyle. “He told me I hit my 100th three. I’m not focused on that. The main thing is learning from this one and getting ready for Xavier.”

Quotable

“Probably when it was 22-4.” – Bowling Green coach Michael Huger, when asked when he felt the game got away from his team.

“I felt like we did a really good job pressuring the ball tonight, making them feel uncomfortable and throwing them out of their offense. That was the biggest thing I could’ve taken from it.” – Ahrens, on Ohio State’s eight steals and 20 points off turnovers

“I thought we had some really loose defensive possessions in the second half and that was probably most disappointing to me. I thought our habits in the first 25 minutes were good on that end right now. Not perfect, but good and better. That was good to see. In games like this, that’s what you’re preaching to your guys.” – Holtmann

“I definitely feel like things were clicking a lot more. We had good gap support. We were helping our teammates out. I felt like it was a nice team effort on the defensive end. That’s why we got a lot of steals. We turned them over a lot. We knew they couldn’t handle the pressure well. Those were focus points we locked into.” – Brown, on the team’s defense.

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