Malaki Branham, E.J. Liddell decisions loom as Ohio State basketball enters offseason

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

PITTSBURGH – Together, they combined for just shy of two-thirds of Ohio State’s points Sunday afternoon at PPG Paints Arena.

Now, after a 71-61 loss to No. 2 seed Villanova in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Buckeyes might have to start visualizing a future without them. Widely projected as first-round NBA draft picks, freshman guard Malaki Branham and junior forward E.J. Liddell enter an offseason with significant decisions ahead of them.

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Neither was committal about staying or going after losing to the Wildcats, but Liddell went through Ohio State’s senior day ceremony March 6 and has been considered ticketed for the next level since he went through the draft process following his sophomore season and opted to return.

Fighting back tears at a televised press conference, Liddell struggled to come to grips with what had just happened.

“Right now I'm just reflecting on enjoying the moments I have with these guys, not even thinking about that, really haven't thought about that process yet,” he said. “But this one stings. I'm not going to say I have thought about it, because I really haven't. This moment right here, I didn't want it to happen, ever.”

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The first Ohio State player to earn first-team all-Big Ten honors in consecutive seasons since Jared Sullinger in 2011 and 2012, Liddell increased his scoring average from 16.2 to 19.4 points per game. He finished with career-high averages in rebounds (7.9) and blocks (2.6), 3-point shooting percentage (37.4) and field-goal percentage (49.0) while serving as Ohio State’s go-to offensive weapon for the majority of the season.

In what would seem to have been his final appearance, Liddell finished with 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting. He had six rebounds, three assists, three steals and three turnovers in 34:44.

It was Branham who assumed more of the go-to role as the game progressed, mirroring the trajectory of his season. Averaging 6.3 points per game through the first 10 games, Branham finished second on the team at 13.4 by scoring 17.0 points per game in the final 22.

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The postgame press conference was cut off by the moderator before Branham could be asked about his future. Earlier this week, he told reporters he hadn’t thought about his future beyond the season.

Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said he expects Branham to go through the draft process.

“I’ve not had specific conversations with his family,” the coach said. “I will when we get back. I’m certain, I’m assuming he’ll do everything in terms of going through the process. It’s certainly out there. It’s certainly a possibility. I’ll advise him as they ask for. We’ll have conversations with his family and I’ll support whatever decision they think is best.”

Those aren’t the only roster decisions to be made in the coming days. Forwards Justice Sueing and Seth Towns could return for their sixth and seventh years, respectively. Ohio State will bring in a five-man freshman class but will also be active in the transfer portal, where it would seem to have immediate needs for impact, experienced players both at power forward and at the point guard position.

Like nearly all teams, the Buckeyes also are likely to lose at least one player to the portal.

“That’s obviously going to be important for us,” Holtmann said of the portal. “We’ll have to sit back and evaluate and talk to Justice and Seth and make those decisions and see. Obviously we have guys on our roster we’ll have to sit down and have conversations with. I think all that will happen. We’ll make those decisions when we move forward.”

The biggest decision would seem to be Branham’s, who was named Big Ten freshman of the year. Liddell and Branham together accounted for 45.4% of Ohio State’s scoring.

“I'm really hurting inside,” Liddell said. “I wish I could have done more to help get it done. This group of guys was really determined. We fought through a lot of adversity and injuries this year. I gave my all this year. I wish I could have done a little bit more, though.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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