As freshmen arrive, here are five things to know about new Ohio State basketball players

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

A class with the potential to be foundational for the Ohio State men’s basketball program has mostly arrived on campus.

When the Buckeyes open the 2022-23 season, their roster will feature eight new faces. Three of them are experienced college basketball transfers, but five of them are freshmen who comprise what 247Sports.com ranks as the Big Ten’s top class. It’s a group featuring four consensus top-60 prospects all projected to immediately slot into the rotation and one that will factor heavily into the future of the program.

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“We are obviously excited about this class,” coach Chris Holtmann said on National Signing Day. “I don’t want to put too much on young guys right now, but Bruce and Roddy and Brice and Felix and Bowen, you have a combination of some really talented guys who address some needs.”

With the early departures of one-and-done guard Malaki Branham and third-year forward E.J. Liddell to the NBA, in addition to the loss of multiple players to graduation, the need for immediate impacts from this class has grown since they all signed in November. Point guard Bruce Thornton, combo guard Roddy Gayle, forward Brice Sensabaugh and center Felix Okpara all figure to occupy important rotational roles this season while guard Bowen Hardman continues to progress from an injury that cost him the majority of his senior season.

All five players spent their senior seasons in different states. Gayle, a New York native, played for Mt. Pleasant (Utah) Wasatch Academy, while Okpara, a native of Nigeria, played for Branson (Missouri) Link Academy. Sensabaugh suited up for Orlando (Florida) Lake Highland Prep, Thornton played for Alpharetta (Georgia) Milton and Hardman finished his career at Cincinnati Princeton.

Of the five, only Gayle has not yet arrived on campus. After playing at Wasatch Academy, he opted to transfer back home to finish high school where he started: Youngstown (New York) Lewiston-Porter.

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Starting June 6, The Dispatch is rolling out in-depth features on all five freshmen. One story will publish each day chronicling the senior seasons for all five players thanks to interviews with both the Buckeyes and their prep coaches.

Here are five things to know about these five freshmen.

1. Felix Okpara’s defense gave Link Academy a shot at a national title

By any measurement, Link Academy’s inaugural season was a success. The Lions finished the year with a 34-2 record and ended with a loss to Montverde (Florida) Academy in the Geico high school national championship game.

As a reserve who accepted his role off the bench, Okpara was instrumental in helping his team get there.

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“We needed him to be our anchor defensively,” coach Rodney Perry said. “He is an elite shot-blocker. We knew the better defensively we are, the better chance we had to win a championship. So, him scoring was always going to be a bonus for us. That’s the part where he played a major factor for us was anchoring us on defense, being able to score offensively from time to time but the main thing was defensively.”

2. Bowen Hardman, Roddy Gayle were slowed by injuries

For Hardman, it was a leg injury that would cost him nearly eight weeks of the season. For Gayle, it was a nagging groin injury that he played through before undergoing surgery in mid-May. For both, it meant not getting to showcase their full talents during their senior seasons.

Hardman, who spent his time leading into Ohio State working with multiple trainers to try and make up for lost time, said he was only able to show less than 20% of what he had hoped for the Vikings. Gayle, who was able to play through his injury, said he was around 85-90% for the season.

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Gayle expects to be full-go by the end of June.

3. Brice Sensabaugh was at his best under the brightest lights

There was no shortage of highlights for Sensabaugh, who after missing his junior season due to injury was named Florida Mr. Basketball after averaging 25.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.

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You can read more about his specific outings in his installment, but coach Ben Fratrik said Sensabaugh especially shined in big games.

“When you went down our big games in terms of either high-caliber teams or important games for us, were all his best games,” Fratrik said. “Our regional final game, our elite eight game, he had 42, his career high, on the biggest stage. Even our final four game we ended up losing by two to Calvary, which was the No. 3 team in the country, Brice was the leading scorer and the best player on the floor. One of the things I was most proud of that I told him was when it really mattered, Brice was always at his best.”

4. Bruce Thornton immediately knew his viral, game-winning shot was good

While playing in the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions in early January, Thornton led Milton past Nixa, Missouri, with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from the midcourt logo. The clip went viral as Thornton and his teammates celebrated their 50-49 win, and Thornton said he knew it was good when he launched it.

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“As soon as it left my hand I felt it: man, this is good,” he said. “And it went in. To hit that in front of a big crowd, being the away team, is the best feeling.”

5. Roddy Gayle got a head start on his senior season

Gayle transferred to Wasatch Academy as a junior to guarantee that he would have a mostly normal season while his home state tried to figure out how to play through the COVID-19 pandemic. He arrived mid-school year and found himself struggling to adapt to the altitude.

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That wasn’t going to happen for his senior season. Gayle moved to campus two weeks early to get a head start on his conditioning with coach Paul Peterson.

“That right there just set the tone going forward because he wanted to be the leader: I’m going to get here early, I’m gonna make sure I’m in shape so when guys are tired I can still be hitting my second wind picking them up,’ ” Peterson said. “That was the main goal for him is just being a leader early on and setting the tone.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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