With Duke looming, what do we know about this Ohio State team?

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch
Seton Hall guard Myles Cale (22) defends against Ohio State guard Malachi Branham (22) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, in Fort Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Scott Audette)

Ohio State remains in fact-finding mode six games into the 2021-22 season. After falling out of the Associated Press top 25 poll to snap a streak of 25 straight weeks of inclusion, the Buckeyes split a pair of games against ranked teams at the Fort Myers Tip-Off.

Life gets no easier this week. Ohio State will host Duke on Tuesday night as part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge in what could be a matchup against the No. 1 team in the nation when the polls refresh Monday at noon. The Buckeyes have seen half of their six games decided on a shot in the final three seconds, two of which were wins, and have seen third-year forward E.J. Liddell vault himself into consideration for Big Ten player of the year honors.

But a number of issues have cropped up along the way as well. A team relying on youth to mature in the backcourt is dealing with the hiccups that come with that process. Injuries have taken a toll. And in both losses, Ohio State’s toughness and ability to handle pressure have been called into question.

Here are a few things we know so far as the Buckeyes prepare to host the Blue Devils and then open Big Ten play.

E.J. Liddell is being relied upon at a historical rate

If it seems like Liddell is carrying an abnormally heavy load for this team, that’s because he is. His 22.5 points per game make him the only Ohio State player in double figures, and he’s more than doubling up the runner-up in Kyle Young (9.6 per game). Through the first six games, Liddell has played more minutes than anyone else (172:23), taken almost twice as many shots as anyone else (Meechie Johnson has taken 44), has attempted three times as many free throws as anyone else (Liddell has 45, Young has 15) and has blocked nearly twice as many shots as the rest of the team combined (23 for Liddell, 13 for everyone else).

Buckeyes basketball:Ohio State's E.J. Liddell embraces being the face of the program

KenPom.com computes a statistic called “percentage of possessions used.” The category is defined as “a measure of personal possessions used while the player is on the court. Simply assigns credit or blame to a player when his actions end a possession, either by making a shot, missing a shot that isn’t rebounded by the offense, or committing a turnover.”

Liddell sits 10th nationally with a usage rate of 35.2. Only two Buckeyes have finished a season at higher than 30%: Evan Turner (34.7) in 2009-10 and D’Angelo Russell (30.2) in 2014-15. In the history of the KenPom era, which dates back to the 2001-02 season, no Ohio State player has had a higher rate than what Liddell has shouldered through six games.

Someone besides Jamari Wheeler needs to learn how to take care of the ball and not turn it over

Wheeler’s reputation as being a tough defender came with him to Ohio State. Six games in, he’s also sharing and taking care of the ball at a clip never before seen during his four years at Penn State.

With 23 assists and four turnovers, Wheeler leads the Big Ten with a 5.75 assist-to-turnover ratio. While with the Nittany Lions, Wheeler was at 1.87 (332 assists, 177 turnovers). His best season was as a sophomore, when his ratio was 2.07 (89 assists, 43 turnovers).

His career numbers might indicate that his current rate is unsustainable, and it’s fair to expect them to come down at some point. It’s also possible that he’s playing around more talent than he did at Penn State, which could also be impacting his statistics.

Rebounding might be an issue – at least offensively

Drawing conclusions about a team based on rebounding numbers can be folly. If a team isn’t missing many shots, it stands to reason it will have fewer opportunities to rebound the ball and therefore more likely to lose the rebounding battle.

But in its last three games against high-major competition, Ohio State has lost the rebounding battle each time. Most importantly, Florida and Xavier each pulled down 16 offensive rebounds while Seton Hall finished with 14. Ohio State’s opponents are pulling down 33.6% of their misses, a figure that ranks the Buckeyes No. 309 nationally.

That’s the highest mark allowed by the Buckeyes since the 2007-08 team allowed opponents to grab 34.3% of their misses. That team missed the NCAA Tournament and won the NIT.

Justice Sueing’s ongoing absence is critical

With all the talk about which players need to give the Buckeyes consistent production alongside Liddell, it’s easy to forget about the primary candidate who isn’t able to help right now. It’s been roughly two weeks since Ohio State shut down fifth-year forward Justice Sueing as he deals with an abdominal injury, and his presence would certainly alleviate some of the pressure his teammates are currently facing.

The plan entering the season was for Sueing to frequently have the ball in his hands in crucial situations. He’s elite at getting to the line and is a proven, capable shot-maker. There’s no like-for-like replacement, and his absence was glaring against Florida.

Meechie Johnson, Malaki Branham haven't arrived yet

Both of Ohio State's young guards have shown moments of potential. In the opening win against Akron, it was Malaki Branham who made the game-winning assist in the final seconds. Against Seton Hall, it was Meechie Johnson Jr. who hit the game-winning 3-pointer also in the final seconds.

But both have struggled. Johnson is averaging 8.0 points per game, but 35 of his 48 points are in three of the six games. That’s 72.9% of his scoring in 50.0% of his games, and in the other three he's made no more than two field goals.

Branham has started the last five games but only scored six points during the two games in Fort Myers and finished with four assists and five turnovers. Together, the two guards have combined for 25 of Ohio State's 74 turnovers.

ajardy@dispatch.com

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