BASKETBALL

Justice Sueing, Ohio State Buckeyes show off new look at open practice

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

There are new lights inside Value City Arena, and they have a purpose. This year, when Ohio State takes the hardwood, the lighting will be prominently focused on the court, illuminating the playing surface and putting the rafters in deep shadows.

It’s an effort to try and coax a little more home-court advantage and atmosphere out of a building that needs capacity crowds in order to match its Big Ten brethren in terms of environment. Monday night, it was first put to the test in a dress rehearsal that was an open practice. For roughly an hour and a half, the Buckeyes showed off their 2022-23 team – nine of them new to the program – through a series of drills and then a question-and-answer session led by alumnus Ron Stokes.

“The good thing is that we’re not the only one,” Holtmann told a crowd of a few hundred tucked into a four-section segment of the lower bowl. “A lot of programs are going through this new age of the transfer portal. You have to adjust. It certainly has some challenges. You probably see that we have a learning curve, for sure, and some of that is we don’t know what we don’t know. I don’t know if you fully understand that until the lights go on.”

They were on Monday night. They’ll be switched on for the first game that counts four weeks from that date. Here’s what this open practice told us about where the Buckeyes sit 10 practices into the season.

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Rebounding drill gets practice underway

The lid was literally on the basket as fans and reporters filed their way into the arena. With the Buckeyes split into two teams, Holtmann would fire up a shot after moving the ball around the perimeter on a covered rim that forced players to battle for the rebound each time.

Next, the players were divided into two lines for two-on-two battles. Teams were awarded two points for grabbing rebounds with both hands, one point for a one-handed rebound and other bonuses for pulling down offensive rebounds. That proved to be fourth-year Wright State transfer Tanner Holden’s specialty, as the wing twice got to the offensive glass against his opponent and kept the possession alive.

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At the end of the drill, the Scarlet team – consisting of Brice Sensabaugh, Roddy Gayle, Zed Key, Gene Brown, Bruce Thornton and Bowen Hardman – had to run extra sprints as their Gray counterparts – Justice Sueing, Sean McNeil, Felix Okpara, Isaac Likekele, Kalen Etzler and Holden – watched and enjoyed their victory.

Felix Okpara’s block party

Listed at 6-11, 220 pounds, freshman center Felix Okpara provides a physical set of skills unlike any Buckeye in recent memory. Strong defensively but a work in progress offensively, Okpara made his presence felt in the paint on multiple battles with third-year center Key.

During a scrimmage segment where teams played five-on-five for 58 seconds, the 6-8, 255-pound Key twice had his attempts at the rim soundly rejected by the freshman. Key wasn’t the only victim of Okpara’s abilities: during a full-on scrimmage later in the practice, Okpara violently swatted Brown on an attempted drive to the basket.

It wasn’t all clean. Okpara was whistled for a goaltending call later in practice, and Key exacted some revenge when he stole a Holden pass intended for Okpara, turned upcourt, kept the freshman on his hip and threw down a right-handed slam dunk.

During his question-and-answer session, Holtmann was asked if Key and Okpara could play together.

“That’s something we could get to,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll get to it this year. I do think we’ll definitely get to it next year. Both those guys have some growth in their game that they need probably for that to happen, but I do see that as something happening in the future.”

Practicing with pace

The majority of practice conducted with fans in the stands was played with an emphasis on tempo, another sign that the Buckeyes could look differently this season offensively. Without the luxury of an E.J. Liddell or Malaki Branham to consistently get tough buckets against half-court defenses, Ohio State is planning on trying to play at a faster pace this season despite having to rely heavily on four freshmen including a true point guard in Thornton.

The 58-second scrimmages seemed designed to force the Buckeyes to get multiple possessions in a short period of time. At other points, Ohio State scrimmaged with only 22 seconds on the shot clock. At all times, the assistant coaches were imploring guys to sprint up and down the court.

“Sprint!” associate coach Jake Diebler yelled at Gayle, a freshman, as he headed up the court while guarded by McNeil. “Ain’t got time for your jogging!” After Sueing didn’t quickly inbound the ball after a made basket, Holtmann singled out the sixth-year player for not moving faster.

Justice Sueing enjoys the moment

After missing all but the first two games of last season with a groin injury that lingered from the end of the 2020-21 season, Sueing seemed to be soaking in the moment as a fully healthy member of the team.

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During practice, his presence was noticeable. He drained multiple 3-pointers, frequently matched up with (and shut down) freshman Sensabaugh and generally showed off the explosive athleticism that had him poised for a significant role last season prior to the injury.

For a stretch, Sueing handled the point in a lineup where Likekele played as a small-ball center and matched up with Key (and even took a charge at one point). Holtmann was asked by a fan if the Buckeyes could utilize a lineup with Sueing, Likekele and Thornton all playing together.

“I definitely think we’ll have a three-guard look,” Holtmann said. “I think the strength of our team right now would be the depth of our versatility in the middle of our lineup. Obviously Justice is critical to that, because he provides a multi-dimensional piece offensively and defensively but there’s no question that we’ll play with a multi-guard lineup even more so than what we have in the past.”

When practice came to a close, and the players huddled at midcourt before introducing themselves to the crowd, Sueing first sprinted to the fans and ran from one end to the other to high-five everyone in the front row.

“This past year has been one of the hardest years I’ve had to go through, especially seeing my brothers out there on Team 123 have such a great season and I wasn’t able to contribute,” he said. “But everything happens for a reason. I worked really hard. I feel great. I’m better than ever and I just can’t wait to get out and see all your faces here in the Schott.”

Chris Holtmann expresses displeasure with Big Ten scheduling

A league with 14 teams (for now) and 20 conference games will never have balanced scheduling for men’s basketball. Still, the way Ohio State’s 2022-23 slate was doled out by the Big Ten did not sit quite well with Holtmann.

“We have limitations on how we can control our Big Ten schedule,” he said. “A little frustrated with the way some of that scheduling turned out, to be quite honest with you. I think there’s some games that should be protected, home-and-homes, but that’s all I’ll say on that right now.”

Ohio State will not host Michigan or Indiana, its two closest Big Ten foes and arguably biggest rivals on the hardwood. The Buckeyes will only play the Wolverines and Hoosiers on the road during the regular season this year.

In the annual preseason media poll conducted jointly by The Dispatch and The Athletic, Indiana and Michigan were picked to finish first and third, respectively, in the league this season.

Other observations

*Holden was impactful throughout practice. In addition to his rebounding, he took a charge on Gayle during the scrimmaging, blew past Brown for a layup at the other end and had a nice finish from the right block on another possession.

*Gayle had a strong scrimmage, showing his ability to score at all three levels. Same for McNeil, who hit a floater in the paint and also took a few pull-up jumpers inside the 3-point line.

*Likekele, Thornton and Etzler all dove for loose balls and were soundly praised for doing do.

*Ohio State’s next availability will take place Wednesday at Big Ten media day. Women’s basketball coach Kevin McGuff will speak for 10 minutes starting at 10:10 a.m. with Holtmann to follow. Likekele, Sueing and Key will represent the men’s team.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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