Justice Sueing takes pregame shots before Ohio State blasts IUPUI
Arguably the most notable development of Tuesday night’s Ohio State game against IUPUI took place about two hours prior to tip.
Inside an empty Value City Arena, before almost all of his fellow Buckeyes took the court for pregame warmups, Justice Sueing emerged wearing scarlet shorts and a gray, long-sleeved Ohio State shirt. For about 20 minutes, the fifth-year forward went through a battery of shooting drills in what passes for standard pregame fare.
For Sueing, though, it was the first time he’d been spotted getting up gameday shots since being shut down two games into the season with what has been described as an abdominal injury. And while he would watch the entirety of an 83-37 win against the Jaguars from the Ohio State bench, it provided the first glimmer of optimism that the player pegged to a primary playmaker during the preseason might be inching closer to a return.
“I think he’s taking it one step at a time and evaluating how he feels,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “He’s getting closer to returning to practice, which is obviously close to returning to games.”
No concrete timetable had been established since Sueing was shut down following the second game of the season. The 6-7, 215-pound Sueing averaged 10.7 points and 5.5 rebounds during the 2020-21 season while starting all 31 games for the Buckeyes but was hobbled late with an undisclosed groin injury. Sueing said during the preseason that he wasn’t fully healed, and after he scored 12 points in 30 minutes as Ohio State beat Akron and Niagara it was clear something was off.
The decision was made to sit Sueing, and that’s where he’s remained. He’s had company on the extended injury list by fellow veteran Seth Towns, a forward who underwent back surgery in September and has not played yet this season.
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Towns had been hoping to return as soon as mid-December, but that proved not to be the case. A bout with COVID-19 didn’t help the situation, either.
“I think Justice is probably a little further along than Seth in his recovery,” Holtmann said. “I see his return to play a little bit sooner than Seth’s.”
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Because the NCAA extended an extra year of eligibility for all players who played last season, both Towns and Sueing could return for another year if they would so choose. Those are not conversations Holtmann said he has had yet with either player.
“They’ll have to decide if it’s best,” he said. “Seth’s a little older than Justice. They’ll have to decide if it’s best for them to return.”
Holtmann said seeing Sueing have to sit out after going through the summer and preseason has been tough.
“It’s probably been the most I’ve been disappointed for a kid in maybe 20 years of coaching,” he said. “Such a good player. I think he has not reached his ceiling as a player. So important for our team. I’m optimistic (he’ll be back).”
Second-year guard Meechie Johnson Jr. also missed his third straight game with a facial injury suffered during a Jan. 11 practice. He is expected to miss at least two weeks with the injury.
Buckeyes host historically poorly ranked IUPUI team
Holtmann opened his postgame press conference by thanking everyone who helped make this game come together, from the ushers and parking attendants who otherwise would’ve had Tuesday off to the Jaguars for also being willing to step outside of their league play and play the Buckeyes.
At 1-14 overall, the Jaguars entered the game ranked No. 356 out of 358 Division I teams according to KenPom.com. That made them the lowest-rated team to play the Buckeyes in the KenPom era, which dates back to the 2001-02 season.
It means that looking at the box score doesn’t really reflect what Ohio State got out of the game. The primary focus was getting the Buckeyes game reps, Holtmann said, and building confident and momentum during a week that will see them play three games in seven days.
“This team in particular played a unique matchup zone that we had not seen all year,” Holtmann said. “We had to run parts of our offense that we had not run all year. That’s one takeaway looking at different combinations, getting guys that had not game repetition, getting them game repetition. All those things.”
Jimmy Sotos was one of those guys. The graduate guard had played 80 minutes all season, 20 of which came in a loss to Florida on Nov. 24, and scored 17 points while dishing out 11 assists.
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Against IUPUI, Sotos played for 19:40 off the bench and finished with 7 points and nine assists, both of which are season-high totals.
“Great teams take care of business, especially at home so regardless of who comes into our building we’re trying to take care of business,” Sotos said. “We got to experience some different lineups. We got to hang our hat on defense in the second half. Definitely not taking them lightly at all. It was good to get out there and play games.”
Ohio State is now 9-0 at home this season.
Gene Brown replaces Justin Ahrens to open second half
High on the list of players the Buckeyes hoped to get going in this game was senior captain Justin Ahrens. Since the COVID pause, Ahrens had shot 5-for-24 (20.8%) from 3-point range, but at the half against IUPUI Ahrens had missed both of his 3-point attempts.
On the final possession of the half for the Buckeyes, Ahrens stepped out of bounds with 3.7 seconds to play to negate what would’ve been a 3-point attempt. When Ohio State returned for the second half, second-year guard Gene Brown III had replaced Ahrens in the starting lineup and he would not enter the game until the 13:40 mark.
“He’s just got to cut loose and play,” Holtmann said. “I think he’s got to pay with a little more juice, a little more confidence to him. He’s probably overthinking it a little bit.”
After missing a third 3-point attempt, Ahrens got the ball on the left wing with 6:23 to go and no defender anywhere near his vicinity. He paused, took one dribble and let another one fly. This time, it found only net, and as the fans who seemingly helped to will it in cheered, Ahrens let out a visible sigh and headed back up the court. Two minutes later, he came out of the game for good.
“All it takes is one,” Sotos said. “Just gotta hit one.”
Holtmann said Ahrens is shooting well in practice and again expressed his confidence that the career 39.8% 3-point shooter will start knocking them down again in games.
“He’s a tremendous shooter,” Holtmann said. “I really don’t worry about it at all. I think he’s going to hit his stride. It’s the least of my concerns. The least of my concerns is Justin Ahrens’ shooting.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Cedric Russell went 4-for-5 from 3-point range and hit his first four attempts, the last of which hit the back of the rim and fell straight through.
“I mean, it was cool, man,” Russell said. “He actually kind of tipped the ball so I didn’t think it had a chance. It ended up going in. I mean, it counts. I ain’t got no problem with that.”
Russell’s four 3-pointers are a season high. The Buckeyes went 11 for 23 (47.8%) after going 6 for 31 (19.45) during their previous two games.
“He’s got to continue to be really committed defensively to how we play,” Holtmann said of Russell. “He’s got to really commit himself on that end and he’s got to be ready when his number’s called. He had good aggressiveness tonight, good pop to him. He’s played well in stretches, in important games.”
What other sub-300 teams has Ohio State played?
This was the 26th time Ohio State has hosted a team nationally ranked No. 300 or worse according to KenPom.com. The previously worst-ranked team to play the Buckeyes was No. 347 Alcorn State, which took a 100-60 loss at Value City Arena on Nov. 9, 2009, in the season opener.
Ohio State’s biggest win against a sub-300 team came Nov. 28, 2009, when the Buckeyes (No. 17 in the AP poll) beat No. 314 St. Francis (Pa.) 110-47, a 63-point win. The closest among those games was a 71-58 win against No. 319 Dartmouth on Dec. 28, 2003.
Here’s the complete list:
No. 347 Alcorn State (Nov. 9, 2009; 100-60)
No. 345 Grambling State (Nov. 17, 2015; 82-55)
No. 340 Southeast Missouri State (Dec. 17, 2019; 80-48)
No. 337 South Carolina State (Nov. 18, 2018; 89-61)
No. 337 North Carolina A&T (Dec. 17, 2014; 97-55)
No. 332 Jackson State (Nov. 18, 2011; 85-41)
No. 329 Jackson State (Nov. 23, 2016; 78-47)
No. 329 Presbyterian (Dec. 16, 2009; 78-48)
No. 326 Tennessee State (Dec. 28, 2002; 94-73)
No. 322 Morgan State (Nov. 29, 2019; 90-57)
No. 322 Western Carolina (Nov. 21, 2016; 66-38)
No. 319 Dartmouth (Dec. 28, 2003; 71-58)
No. 319 Houston Baptist (Jan. 9, 2009; 89-65)
No. 318 UMKC (Nov. 23, 2012; 91-45)
No. 316 Delaware State (Nov. 20, 2008; 79-42)
No. 315 The Citadel (Dec. 19, 2017; 94-65)
No. 314 Albany (Nov. 20, 2001; 87-62)
No. 314 St. Francis (Pa.) (Nov. 28, 2009; 110-47)
No. 313 Radford (Dec. 23, 2002; 96-80)
No. 312 Texas Pan American (Dec. 3, 2011; 64-35)
No. 309 VMI (Dec. 5, 2015; 89-62)
No. 305 Central Connecticut (Dec. 7, 2013; 74-56)
No. 303 UMass Lowell (Nov. 14, 2014; 92-55)
No. 301 Campbell (Nov. 26, 2014; 91-64)
No. 301 Coppin State (Dec. 30, 2006; 91-54)
Ohio State did not play a sub-300 team in 2010-11, 2007-08, 2005-06 or 2004-05.
“It’s not like every year we’re going to play five teams that are in complete rebuilding mode but I think this one was important for those (game-repetition) reasons,” Holtmann said.
By the numbers
*E.J. Liddell had 13 points and 10 rebounds and now sits at 988 career points.
*Holtmann has now won 99 games at Ohio State.
*Four Buckeyes had season-high scoring totals: Brown (14), Russell (12), Sotos (7) and Harrison Hookfin (2).
*Ohio State turned 21 IUPUI turnovers into 31 points and committed a season-low eight turnovers.
*In a 46-point win, Ohio State did not score a single point via the fast break. IUPUI had two.
“I thought his play was good and something he can continue to build upon. He’s got to embrace the idea of being a guy that can guard multiple positions and be really good and detailed on that end and play with great effort and rebound the ball and then make open shots. He doesn’t need to hunt shots on this team because we have enough offensive weapons. He’s got to be a great cutter offensively and embrace what we’re asking defensively.” – Holtmann on Brown, who had a career-high 14 points
“Iron sharpens iron. We go at it. A lot of times practice is harder than games. We hang our hat on that. We push each other every day. Guys are always not trying to take each other’s spot, just more so it’s pride. You do what you can, get that guy better through the process.” – Sotos, on the battle for playing time
“Staying consistent with the same approach, whether it’s that team or a Big Ten team. Not trying to play down to the level of competition. Approaching every game with the same mindset.” – Russell