BASKETBALL

As practice begins, one looming question for each Ohio State player

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

The search for answers officially begins today.

Wednesday, the Ohio State men’s basketball team will conduct its first official practice of the preseason. The Buckeyes will open the season Nov. 1 with an exhibition game against Chaminade and then kick things off for real six days later against Robert Morris at Value City Arena, but there is no shortage of storylines that will play out in the interim. On Monday afternoon, coach Chris Holtmann spent part of the team’s media day by fending off a question about one magazine’s preseason ranking of the Buckeyes.

“It’s talking season,” Holtmann said. “We’re about the work. That’s talk.”

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It’s no understatement that the work that needs to take place is unlike any prior team in Ohio State history. The 2022-23 Buckeyes return only two players who saw action in more than two games last season on a roster that will feature five freshmen and three veteran transfers.

Here’s one question for all 12 scholarship members of this year’s team.

Is Gene Brown III’s all-around game ready?

Through two seasons, Brown has carved out a reputation as a potential “3 and D” guy for the Buckeyes. He hit big shots as freshman to help the Buckeyes past UCLA in the CBS Sports Classic in Cleveland and saw his playing time double as a sophomore while emerging as a tough-nosed rebounder despite missing time six games due to injury. As one of the two returners from last year’s team, Brown is seeking to show off his full offensive arsenal.

“There’s a lot that hasn’t been displayed,” he said. “Just driving the ball more, making more shots, creating for others, everything really.”

Ohio State Buckeyes guard Gene Brown (3) dunks the ball during the first half of the NCAA basketball game against the Bowling Green Falcons at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio Nov. 15.

Brown showed glimpses of that on Ohio State’s foreign exhibition trip to the Bahamas this summer, but on a team with so many new faces a consistent, well-rounded Brown on the offensive end would be a boost.

Can Kalen Etzler put his redshirt lessons to work?

The native of Convoy, Ohio, came to Ohio State with a clear need to bulk up and add weight in order to play as a forward in the Big Ten. Etzler bided his time, put in work in the weight room and now is hoping to turn that into results as a redshirt freshman. He’s worked on his outside shot with assistant coach Mike Netti and is among the team’s most explosive dunkers, but while in the Bahamas Etzler struggled to put it all together.

He has the tools to be a productive player, and there is a strong belief on the coaching staff that his long-term ceiling is very high. This preseason is his chance to start proving it.

How quickly can Roddy Gayle learn Ohio State’s defense?

Although a groin injury held him back a bit during his senior year at Mount Pleasant (Utah) Wasatch Academy, Gayle showed his offensive athleticism as a three-level scorer and carried that over to Ohio State’s foreign exhibition trip to the Bahamas during the summer. Gayle is fully healthy and has the potential to be a significant weapon for the Ohio State offense, but his ability to stay on the court could be tied to how well he can defend.

Make no mistake: Gayle will play major minutes for the Buckeyes. But if he can quickly grasp onto some of the team’s defensive concepts, he has the potential to finish among this team’s leading scorers.

Will Bowen Hardman be able to make an impact?

Whether it’s been in summer practices or while in the Bahamas, Hardman has shown a clear ability to hit 3-pointers. Shooting ability has never been a question for the 6-3, 175-pound guard from Cincinnati, but after a leg injury cost him the majority of his senior season Hardman has the longest shot among the newcomers to see playing time. He’s the lightest scholarship player on the roster by at least 15 pounds.

In a crowded backcourt, Hardman will need to take significant strides to put himself in position for early-season minutes.

Can Tanner Holden improve his perimeter shot?

A three-year player at Wright State, Holden averaged 20.1 points per game and poured in 37 points in a First Four NCAA Tournament win before transferring to Ohio State during the spring. In three seasons with the Raiders, he averaged 16.1 points per game but will have to make an adjustment to the high-major level. Of his 851 field-goal attempts, only 117 (13.7%) were from 3-point range, where he shot 35.0%.

To be the player Ohio State needs him to be, Holden will have to improve his game from further away from the rim.

“He’s a terrific cutter,” Holtmann said. “He’s a good athlete. He has scored primarily some outside the 3 but a lot of it’s been inside. He’s going to have to continue to expand his game to be the most effective in the next two years and I think he’s growing in that.”

Can Zed Key shoot like Kaleb Wesson?

Every expectation will be raised for the leading returner in every significant statistical category from a season ago, from scoring to rebounding to minutes played to leadership on and off the court. None might be more important for Ohio State than the belief that the 6-9, 245-pound center will be able to add a 3-point shot to his game.

A player who has never attempted a 3-pointer in a college game isn’t about to suddenly morph into the second coming of Jon Diebler, but there’s a recent Ohio State big man who could provide a better blueprint. After going 4 for 14 from 3 as a freshman in 2017-18, Kaleb Wesson went 26 for 75 (34.7%) during his second season and at least made teams need to respect his outside shooting ability.

The hope is the same for Key.

Ohio State Buckeyes forward Zed Key (23) shoots over Wisconsin Badgers center Chris Vogt (33) during the first half of the NCAA men's basketball game at Value City Arena in Columbus on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021.

“I’m not 7 foot (tall),” he said. “At the next level, my position is a 3/4 so I’ve got to be able to shoot the 3, got to be able to move and put the ball on the floor. I’m definitely a lot more confident being able to shoot the ball.”

Where can Isaac Likekele make the biggest impact?

The Oklahoma State transfer known as “Ice” by his teammates projects to play multiple roles in his lone season for the Buckeyes. A bruising, physically imposing point guard, Likekele’s 6-5, 215-pound frame also allows him to log heavy minutes in the paint as an undersized big. As the Buckeyes aim to use their positional versatility to improve what was the fourth-worst defense in the Big Ten last season according to KenPom.com, Likekele figures to be a primary component in those plans.

Adding even the threat of a 3-point shot could help, too: in four seasons with the Cowboys, Likekele was just 19 for 68 (27.9%) from deep.

What else is in Sean McNeil’s bag?

The West Virginia graduate transfer has a proven track record of knocking down 3-pointers. McNeil hit 36.8% of his 421 attempts from deep in 89 games with the Mountaineers, but part of his desire to transfer for his final season had to do with his belief that there’s more there.

His new teammates said they’ve started to see it.

“Of course you’re going to see the 3s, but I feel like you’ll see a couple highlight plays sprinkled in there, playmaking, creating for others, mid-range, all that,” Brown said. “If he gets going, he gets going. He can score in bunches.”

What is the status of Felix Okpara’s offensive game?

It’s accurate to state that Ohio State hasn’t had a big man quite like Okpara before. The 6-11, 220-pound freshman will play as Key’s backup this season and give Ohio State a different dynamic when he checks in with his leaping ability and shot-blocking capabilities. Offensively, he’s a threat to catch just about any lob pass thrown his direction, but after picking up the game only four years ago Okpara is still raw when it comes to offensive fundamentals.

The sooner he can develop post moves and a consistent back-to-the-basket game, the more he can help Ohio State on that end.

“I know that I’m ready,” he said. “This year, I can impact the court defensively, offensively too. Defensively, my blocking shot ability and rebounding offensively, attacking the rim.”

Could Brice Sensabaugh be the guy?

The same defensive questions exist for Sensabaugh as for just about all freshmen, but if his defense allows him to stay on the court for extended periods of time Sensabaugh presents significant mismatch problems for opposing defenses. A 6-6, 235-pound forward who can move like a guard but looks like a power forward, Sensabaugh has the makings of a star.

That’s a lot to put on a first-year player, but last season Malaki Branham went from touted newcomer to first-round NBA draft pick in the span of a few months. It’s hard to know just how much to project from Sensabaugh, but the potential is there for a monster freshman season. Perhaps most importantly: he doesn’t seem particularly concerned about any of that. When a reporter told him that he’d scored 50 points during a Kingdom Summer League game this summer, Sensabaugh’s response was simple: “OK.”

When can Justice Sueing shake the rust off?

The status of the sixth-year forward remains the biggest “What if?” of the 2021-22 season. Had Sueing been healthy, it’s likely Ohio State would have remained in the running for a Big Ten title and put together a more impressive postseason rather than faltering in the final weeks as fatigue and injuries proved too much to overcome.

Now, though, he’s back, fully healthy and raring to go. At his best, Sueing is elite at getting to the rim and drawing fouls, capable of pulling down rebounds from the wing and able to run the point and direct the offense. Ohio State can put the ball in his hands in crucial late-game situations, and he is a likely candidate to lead the team in scoring.

Ohio State Buckeyes forward Justice Sueing (14) goes up for a shot while guarded by Michigan State Spartans forward Aaron Henry (0) during Sunday's NCAA Division I men's basketball game at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio on January 31, 2021. Ohio State won the game 79-62.

That is, assuming he can knock the rust off as quickly as possible after playing in only the first two games of last season before the injury forced him to the sideline.

“Everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I’m excited for the season. I plan on producing and really bouncing back and showing what I can do this year.”

How short is Bruce Thornton’s memory?

Multiple players talked at media day about this year’s offense being played at a faster tempo than in the past seasons. That’s partially a reflection in a change of leadership, with associate head coach Jake Diebler taking the reins from new Illinois State head coach Ryan Pedon, but in order for the Buckeyes to play faster they are going to need their freshman point guard to be ready for that challenge.

Thornton was a top-50 prospect according to the 247Sports.com composite and is viewed as Ohio State’s lead guard of the future, but freshmen point guards are bound to make mistakes along the way. For Thornton to excel, he’ll need to show early and often that he can shake off a turnover or mistake and quickly move onto the next play.

“It’s impossible to go 100%,” he said. “I know I’m going to mess up. It’s the next play. Don’t let the same mistake happen over and over again.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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