Justice Sueing's return, Isaac Likekele's role and six thoughts on Ohio State's roster

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch
The Ohio State Buckeyes huddle up prior to the NCAA men's basketball game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Value City Arena in Columbus on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

Three additions, four losses and nine total decisions later, Ohio State appears to finally have a 2022-23 roster.

Since the Buckeyes exited the NCAA Tournament with a second-round loss to Villanova, coach Chris Holtmann has had to navigate a significant roster overhaul both in the locker room and on the bench. Now, after landing Oklahoma State transfer Isaac Likekele on Wednesday and announcing the final additions to his coaching staff Thursday, Holtmann knows what cards he should be able to play when his sixth season at Ohio State gets underway this fall.

All 13 roster spots are now spoken for. Ohio State will have a blend of youth (five freshmen) and experience (five players in at least their fourth seasons of college basketball) scattered around a roster replacing 85.9% of its points, 71.6% of its rebounds and 83.6% of its minutes played from this past season.

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That’s a lot of production. Then, on the coaching side, Ryan Pedon and Tony Skinn are gone, Jack Owens is in, Mike Netti has been promoted and two more staff members have been assigned to new roles.

With all of that in mind, here are six thoughts on what this might all look like this season.

1. This will all start with Justice Sueing

Mar 19, 2021; West Lafayette, Indiana, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes forward Justice Sueing (14) dunks over Oral Roberts Golden Eagles forward Francis Lacis (22) during the first half in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Mackey Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joshua Bickel-USA TODAY Sports

Landing three players via the transfer portal was important to bolster the roster, and four incoming freshmen ranked among the top 60 nationally all figure to make impacts to some degree this season. But when it comes to roster additions that will most impact Ohio State’s bottom line this upcoming season, landing Justice Sueing for a sixth and final season of college basketball remains the biggest get for Holtmann.

When Sueing opted to leave California after two seasons, he chose Ohio State in part because he wanted to test himself in a part of the country that was entirely unfamiliar to him. After sitting out his transfer year (remember those?), Sueing started all 31 games during the 2020-21 season and emerged as one of the Big Ten’s top players. According to KenPom.com, Sueing ranked among the top 20 in free-throw percentage, two-point field-goal percentage, free-throw rate, fouls drawn per 40 minutes, effective field goal percentage and offensive rebounding percentage during league games.

He finished third on the team in scoring (10.7 points per game) and second in rebounding (5.5 per game) while playing on the wing, at power forward and even handling the point despite dealing with a groin/abdominal injury that has never been fully disclosed but which hampered him during the postseason and eventually cost him all but the first two games of the 2021-22 season. With one more year of eligibility, Sueing could have gone elsewhere in search of a fresh start.

Instead, he’s back, healthy and expected to be the team’s primary weapon. He’s long, athletic, versatile and a proven high-level contributor. Sueing still has room to improve his game, but this season will open with him as the face of the program.

2. Put Zed Key in your projected starting lineup

Ohio State Buckeyes forward Zed Key (23) dribbles around Minnesota Golden Gophers forward Eric Curry (1) during the second half of the NCAA men's basketball game at Value City Arena in Columbus on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. Ohio State won 70-45.

After Sueing, the most-guaranteed player to be on the court whenever the Buckeyes tip the season off is third-year center Zed Key. After averaging 5.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in 11.7 minutes per game during his first season, Key started 23 of the 29 games he played and saw his numbers increase to 7.8, 5.6 and 19.8, respectively.

There were growing pains along the way. Key was a force in a home win against No. 1 Duke, scoring a career-high 20 points in 27 minutes. He had the game-winning basket right before the buzzer to stave off an upset bid from Akron in the season opener, and on a night where fatigue hampered the Buckeyes in their first game back after a 22-day COVID-19 pause, he pulled down 14 rebounds in an overtime win at Nebraska.

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He struggled as the season went on and scored in single digits in his final nine games while missing three others with an ankle injury. Key is still working to put it all together on a nightly basis, but he will open the season being counted on to log 25 minutes a game and shoulder a bigger load on both ends of the court. Key has been working on a jumper and continues to slim down his body, and he will open the season as the go-to player in the post.

3. Here’s why Ohio State didn’t add a “big” in the transfer portal

Behind Key, freshman Felix Okpara is ticketed to see important minutes and provide a different post dynamic. Key was listed at 6-8, 245 pounds last season. Okpara is listed at 6-11, 210 pounds according to 247Sports.com but arrives as the No. 54 national prospect and the No. 11 center in the nation.

Okpara presents an entirely different set of skills than Key and is expected to bring rim protection and raw athleticism with a still-developing offensive game. He will play important minutes, but it’s not clear that Okpara and Key are capable of sharing time together. Given that, any transfer addition at center would have had to be someone willing to lap up whatever minutes were left over behind those two when the Buckeyes were not playing small-ball lineups.

4. This makes the Isaac Likekele signing so intriguing

Oklahoma State guard Bryce Williams (14) and Oklahoma State guard Isaac Likekele (13) struggle for the ball with Baylor forward Flo Thamba (0) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Feb. 21 in Stillwater, Okla. Baylor defeated Oklahoma State 66-64 in overtime.

Yes, he’s been dubbed the “linebacker at point guard” by ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla during his four seasons at Oklahoma State. And no, his 6-5 height doesn’t scream post player in the Big Ten. And yet, Likekele will be expected to contribute both in the backcourt and potentially in the frontcourt as well thanks to his athleticism and toughness.

With one roster spot available and a need for an experienced ball handler to help freshman Bruce Thornton, Likekele addresses that need while also bringing a profile that will see him defending 1-4 and potentially some center as well. Think of him as a poor man’s Draymond Green.

5. The backcourt will have to blend youth and experience

West Virginia Guard Sean McNeil (22) pushes past Texas Guard Courtney Ramey (3) at the Frank Erwin Center on Jan. 1, 2022.

Thornton is the No. 42 national recruit in the 247Sports composite database. That sets him second among Ohio State’s incoming freshman, just one spot behind shooting guard Roddy Gayle. Both are four-star prospects and both will play significant minutes, but it’s unlikely the Buckeyes will open with a pair of true freshmen running their backcourt.

That’s where West Virginia transfer Sean McNeil, Likely and, to some extent, Wright State transfer Tanner Holden all enter the equation. McNeil averaged 12.2 points per game in each of the last two seasons of Big 12 play and Likekele is a proven stat-stuffer who was the first player in program history to top 1,000 points, 600 rebounds and 400 assists. Holden figures to play more on the wing than as a true guard, leaving Gayle, Likekele, McNeil and Thornton to battle for the bulk of the minutes.

Figuring out who can play with whom will be a fascinating subplot for the summer and fall.

6. Who fills out the wing spots?

The versatility that Sueing and Likekele should provide will give Holtmann some decisions to make when it comes to the wings. Third-year player Gene Brown III shone at times and played his way into the starting lineup last season but was slowed by injuries and is still growing offensively. He could see minutes at the 3 with Sueing at the 4, but the same could be said for Holden, who averaged 20.1 points for Wright State last season.

The rising wildcard is freshman Brice Sensabaugh, a 6-6, 240-pound forward who is the highest-rated member of Ohio State’s class in ESPN’s rankings after a meteoric climb as a senior. Holtmann has publicly described him as borderline unguardable given his size and skill, and he figures to factor into the rotation in a significant way.

Redshirt freshman Kalen Etzler and seventh-year graduate Seth Towns are both wild cards here. If stronger (Etzler) and fully healthy (Towns), both could be viewed as contributors to play alongside Sueing at the 4 and Towns could be a candidate to play center in a small-ball lineup.

If Sueing is the starting small forward, Sensabaugh, Etzler and even Likekele would seem to be options at power forward. If Sueing is the power forward, Holden, Brown and three-guard lineups could all be in the mix.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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