Just tuning into Ohio State men's hoops? Here's what you've missed

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

Football season is officially at an end. After a comeback Rose Bowl win against Utah on New Year’s Day, Ohio State closed the 2021 season with an 11-2 record and sent quarterback C.J. Stroud to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist.

The Buckeyes will not play another official game until Notre Dame, led by former Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman, comes to Ohio Stadium for the 2022 season opener on Sept. 3. Odds are you already know that, and you likely have a countdown already in place until the start of the season.

But along the way, the Ohio State men’s basketball team has jumped out to a 9-2 start that includes a comeback home win against No. 1 Duke, a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat Seton Hall, a last-second win against Akron and a 22-day pause due to a COVID-19 outbreak. In short, there’s been a little bit of everything, and Big Ten play is only now getting fully underway.

If you’ve been following along all along, hopefully you still find this entertaining. Either way, here are five things you should know about the 2020-21 Buckeyes if you’re just now planning to tune in.

E.J. Liddell might be the national player of the year

A first-team all-Big Ten pick after a breakout sophomore season, E.J. Liddell took a long, hard look at the NBA before opting to return for a third season at Ohio State. The feedback he got through the process told him there wasn’t any one glaring area where he needed to improve; he simply had to keep doing what he was doing but be better at doing it.

That seemed a tall ask for a player who averaged 16.2 points, a team-best 6.7 rebounds per game, 1.8 assists and 1.1 blocks, but 11 games into this season he’s done it. Liddell is averaging 19.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 3.0 blocks while playing 30.4 minutes per game. He’s the only player in the nation averaging at least 19 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three blocks.

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

Liddell leads the national player of the year rankings on KenPom.com and was listed as the odds-on favorite to take home the John R. Wooden Award according to BetOnline.ag. Wednesday, he was named one of 25 midseason candidates for the award.

Even when his shot isn’t falling, Liddell still fills out the stat sheet. Sunday night at Nebraska, Liddell suffered through a 2-for-14 shooting effort but still finished with 10 points, eight rebounds, four blocks and a career-high seven assists that moved him to 100 helpers in his career. He also pulled down a rebound with about 10 seconds left, drew a foul on the put-back and hit both free throws with 8.9 seconds left to tie the game and send it to overtime.

He’s now scored in double figures in 22 straight games dating back to last season. Liddell is putting together a special type of season in what is almost certainly his final year at Ohio State.

Young guards Malaki Branham, Meechie Johnson showing their ages

After losing leading scorer Duane Washington to the NBA (signed a two-way deal with Indiana after going undrafted) and primary point guard CJ Walker to the professional level, the Buckeyes opened the season with a wide-open backcourt. Fifth-year Penn State transfer Jamari Wheeler arrived to provide some much-needed experience, but Ohio State pinned much of its hopes for growth and success on a pair of relative newbies.

Meechie Johnson graduated high school early and joined the team last December, appearing in 17 games and totaling just shy of 100 minutes of playing time while acclimating to the level. He started the season opener against Akron alongside Wheeler, but he quickly gave way to first-year guard Malaki Branham, the youngest player on the roster and last season’s Ohio Mr. Basketball at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary.

Both have had their highs and lows. Johnson hit the game-winner against Seton Hall while playing in the Fort Myers Tip-Off and has hit six of his nine 3-point attempts in Big Ten play. Branham exploded for 35 points in Sunday’s win at Nebraska, the most for an Ohio State freshman in a Big Ten game in program history.

Johnson also leads Ohio State’s guards with 21 turnovers and has had four games with one or zero made field goals. Branham was scoreless with a season-high four turnovers in a win against Wisconsin on Dec. 11, the last time out before playing Nebraska.

Both still have plenty of room to grow, and their development will go a long way toward determining Ohio State’s ceiling this March.

The offense is again among the nation’s best

Duane Washington, last year’s leading scorer, is splitting time with the Indiana Pacers and their G League affiliate. His ability to create his own offense and make shots left tough shoes to fill for the Buckeyes, but a host of characters have stepped up and allowed them to hardly miss a beat.

Last season, Ohio State finished fourth nationally with an offensive efficiency rating of 120.7 according to KenPom.com, meaning they averaged that number of points per 100 possessions. It was the best single-season total for the program since it led the nation at 125.0 in 2010-11, and with so many new faces it was reasonable to expect a drop-off this season.

Instead, the Buckeyes are nipping on the heels of last year’s mark at 116.1 points per 100 possessions, the seventh-highest mark in the nation. Liddell has been the driving force, but center Zed Key has nearly doubled his scoring average (5.2 points last year, 10.1 this year), Wheeler is averaging a career-high 7.2 points per game and Ohio State is 10th nationally in 3-point shooting percentage (39.7%) and 22nd in two-point shooting (55.6%).

Ohio State basketball:After fellow Buckeyes came to his aid, Zed Key emerges as Ohio State's 'Mr. Fix-It'

It’s also worth pointing out that these numbers have been posted despite losing Justice Sueing for an extended period of time after only two games. Projected as a key contributor and likely the second-leading scorer behind Liddell, Sueing is expected to return sometime this year as he recovers from an abdominal injury that has lingered since late last season.

…but the turnover issues remain

The fact that the offense has been so prolific has made an inability to take better care of the basketball all the more frustrating. A team that has the seventh-most efficient offense is also averaging 12.8 turnovers per game and 14.3 per Big Ten game.

The Buckeyes turn the ball over on 18.8% of their possessions, ranking them 170th nationally according to KenPom. In conference games, that number jumps to 20.4%, which ranks dead last in the Big Ten. It’s an issue, one that Holtmann said Wednesday isn’t likely to be cut down to near the level of last year’s team.

Ohio State finished 18th nationally last season with a turnover rate of 15.5%, the program’s best mark since KenPom started tracking the statistic for the 1996-97 season. The Buckeyes have had double-digit turnovers in every game this season with a high of 18 in a loss to Florida on Nov. 24.

Liddell leads the way by a wide margin with 35 turnovers. Johnson is next at 21.

This team has a flair for the dramatic

There is a real belief among these Buckeyes that they are destined for big things this season, and it’s a feeling forged in the fires of plenty of early-season theatrics.

The season opener against Akron came down to the final possession, where Branham fed Key on the block for a lay-in at the buzzer to steal a one-point win from the Zips. Thirteen days later, Johnson buried a 3-pointer with two seconds left to sink Seton Hall. Two days after that, Florida turned the tables and hit a 3 at the buzzer to hand the Buckeyes a three-point loss.

Ohio State’s other loss came at Xavier in front of a raucous crowd overjoyed to see the Buckeyes at the Cintas Center as part of the Gavitt Games, and although Ohio State wouldn’t have the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead during the final minute it did get the deficit to three and two points before falling 71-65.

Most recently, the Buckeyes needed some magic to pull off a win at Nebraska. After losing three games to a COVID-19 outbreak, Ohio State returned to the court at Pinnacle Bank Arena and was trailing the Cornhuskers by five points with less than 30 seconds remaining but managed to send the game to overtime and emerge with an eight-point win.

All that, and the Buckeyes are only three games into league play. Buckle up.