As Ohio State heads to the Bahamas, here are five pressing questions for the Buckeyes
There’s a lot to learn about this Ohio State men’s basketball team in the coming week.
Thursday, the Buckeyes will fly to the Bahamas for a pair of exhibition games against the Egyptian and Puerto Rican national teams. The games will be played at the Atlantis resort and be the first ones against outside competition for a rebuilt roster.
It’s a chance to test some things out, to mix and match lineups and get creative while gathering early intel on what the 2022-23 team will look like. Ohio State won’t be at full strength – forwards Justice Sueing and Seth Towns won’t play and wing Gene Brown III might be on a minutes restriction – but it will get to take extended looks at a roster mostly comprised of new faces.
What it won’t be is a chance for Holtmann to show off his best tropical-themed shirt. In addition to the Bahamas trip, the Buckeyes will participate in this year’s Maui Invitational starting with a Nov. 21 game against San Diego State.
Ohio State basketball insider: Stay in the know with texts from beat reporter Adam Jardy
Ohio State Buckeyes:'Vet Week' brings generations of Ohio State players together for work
Although Holtmann said he’ll always lean toward playing Thanksgiving-week events in warm, sunny climates, you won’t see him in the Hawai’ian shirts associated with Maui or the Bahamas.
“Maui has given us a Hawai’i shirt,” Holtmann said when asked by a well-dressed reporter. “You could pull it off. I can not pull it off, nor will I.”
Now that that’s been established, here are five things we hope to learn about the Buckeyes on this trip to the Bahamas.
1. How much can Ohio State's freshmen do?
Holtmann signed a five-man freshman class ranked tops in the Big Ten and No. 8 nationally according to 247Sports.com. Of that group, four were four-star prospects who are expected to play important roles this season: guards Roddy Gayle Jr. and Bruce Thornton, forward Brice Sensabaugh and center Felix Okpara.
Each will experience growing pains throughout the year, but the long-term vision for the program is heavily wrapped up that quartet. These games against Egypt and Puerto Rico will mark their first competition against older and, most likely, physically stronger veteran basketball players.
In action at the Kingdom Summer League at Ohio Dominican, Thornton (6-2, 215 pounds) and Sensabaugh (6-6, 235) have physically looked the part while Okpara (6-11, 220) has showed raw athleticism. Gayle (6-4, 205) spent the early portion of the summer recovering from a groin injury.
Brice Sensabaugh:Scoring outburst leads Ohio State players in Kingdom Summer League play
“He’s a great kid,” Holtmann said of Sensabaugh. “He is a natural-born scorer of the ball. He just is. Can do it at an elite level right now. He has to continue to work on other aspects of his game, including his fitness and his conditioning but has some real natural gifts offensively. All four of the freshmen that we expect to play have all had really good moments in practice.”
That has extended to Okpara, too, whose early experiences have flashed potential along with the reality that there is work to be done.
“There’s going to have to be a patience level with any big guy who’s a freshman, but he’s done some really good things,” Holtmann said. “He still gets the ball slapped away from him at times. There’s a lot of things we’ve got to work on with him. He’s a legit 6-11. Almost reached the top of the backboard. He’s a really good athlete. He’s a terrific mover at that size. He’s almost 220 right now, so his body has continued to take shape.
“He’s going to have some growing pains this year as all those guys are for sure.”
That will be on display at Atlantis.
2. How’s Zed Key’s jumper?
When the Buckeyes signed Zed Key out of Bay Shore (New York) Long Island Lutheran as part of their 2020 class, they knew they were getting a big man who had scored at every level of competition. The belief was there that Key would continue on that path at the collegiate level, as was the belief that there was more to his game than what he’d had to show.
Namely, that as he progressed, Key would be able to add an effective jumper to his offensive arsenal. As he enters his third season at Ohio State, the 6-8, 255-pound Key will be asked to average roughly one 3-pointer a game. Doing so will help create better spacing for what is expected to be a deep stable of guards and wings while he’s on the floor, and it’s something assistant coach Jake Diebler in particular has worked on with Key since his sophomore season came to a close.
From 'finger guns' to captain? Ohio State veteran Zed Key looking for more
Key has attempted 268 field goals in two seasons at Ohio State. None of them have been 3-pointers.
“He’s shooting them (now),” Holtmann said.
Then, after a pause, Holtmann was asked: is he making them?
“A couple,” he said. “We are actually encouraging him to shoot a lot. We’ve told him keep shooting.”
What will that look like against actual competition? This will be a first glimpse.
3. Where does Isaac Likekele play?
With one roster spot remaining for the 2022-23 season, the Buckeyes were in need of both some extra size in the post and an experienced ball-handler. In bringing in fifth-year Oklahoma State transfer Isaac Likekele, the hope was that his 6-5, 215-pound frame will address both needs.
Essentially a point/forward for the Cowboys, Likekele brings a significant statistical profile to the Buckeyes. He’s the only player in program history to score more than 1,000 points, pull down at least 600 rebounds and dish out more than 400 assists and was once described as a “linebacker at point guard” by ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla.
With the Buckeyes, Likekele seems likely to both help run the point alongside freshman Bruce Thornton and also see time as a power forward or even potentially at center in small-ball lineups. Although playing time will be more equally distributed across the roster than it will be during the season, it will be interesting to see how much time Likekele plays in the backcourt as opposed to on the block.
One thing is clear about his role: when discussing the leadership of two specific players on this year’s team, Holtmann also mentioned Likekele unprompted.
4. Does anything look different defensively?
It’s not a secret that Ohio State’s team defense has held the Buckeyes back recently. After finishing in the top 25 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com during Holtmann’s first three seasons, the Buckeyes slipped to Nos. 82 and 111, respectively, during the last two seasons.
With five guards listed between 6-4 and 6-6 and wing/forwards like Justice Sueing (6-6, 210) and Sensabaugh, the Buckeyes figure to have more options to apply defensive pressure. The hope is that the increased attention to those positions will lead to a greater ability to switch on the perimeter and prevent mismatches.
“I think we’re deeper,” Holtmann said. “As long as we stay healthy (we’re) a little bit deeper, a little bit more mobile.”
That won’t be known for some time. With 10 practices, the Buckeyes can only realistically do so much and it’s unlikely the defensive gameplan for the season will be on full display in the Bahamas. But if Ohio State can eliminate some of the ball-screen issues that plagued it last season, create some turnovers and simply keep guys in front, that would bode well for the direction the season could take.
5. Who gets buckets?
At the other end of the court, Ohio State’s offense will be overseen by Diebler for the first time after Ryan Pedon accepted the Illinois State head coaching job late last season. What that will ultimately look like isn’t clear right now, which means the offense figures to be pretty basic in the two exhibition games.
So if that’s the case, who can go out and get a bucket? Last season, those roles were filled by E.J. Liddell and, eventually, Malaki Branham. They are both gone, leaving primary scoring roles wide open this year.
Sueing, when he returns to action, will be a primary option. Without him in the lineup, is Sean McNeil a leading scorer? Sensabaugh? Key? Someone else?
These two games will give some insight into who might be leading candidates when the games start to count.