Ohio State starters carrying water, freshmen making impact as lineups evolve in two games

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

The season is a week old and the mixing and matching is just getting started for Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann.

A revamped roster with five freshmen, three transfers and only two players to see action in more than two games last season has brought a completely new look to the 2022-23 Buckeyes. While trying to figure out which players mesh well with others, which lineups can do what and simply how to win games, Holtmann has had the luxury of a pair of blowout wins to start testing things.

Nov 10, 2022; Columbus, OH, USA;  Ohio State Buckeyes freshmen, from left, Roddy Gayle Jr., Brice Sensabaugh, Bruce Thornton and Felix Okpara talk during the first half of the NCAA men's basketball game against the Charleston Southern Buccaneers at Value City Arena. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch

As Ohio State has opened with a 91-53 win against Robert Morris on Nov. 7 and an 82-56 win against Charleston Southern three days later, the coach has utilized 26 different lineups consisting solely of scholarship players.

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By way of comparison, Ohio State had used 33 different lineup combinations through its first two games last season. In doing so, the Buckeyes beat Akron, 67-66, and Niagara, 84-74. Those teams were ranked Nos. 126 and 190, respectively, at

Here’s what the lineups for the first two games have looked like this season and what they tell us about this team’s start.

What’s Ohio State's most-used lineup so far?

By a wide margin, it’s the starting lineup. Holtmann has gone with Bruce Thornton, Sean McNeil, Isaac Likekele, Justice Sueing and Zed Key to open both games, and that lineup has in turn logged the most minutes. The starters were together for 12:40 in the Robert Morris game and 12:08 in the Charleston Southern game for a total of 24:48, or 20.1% of the first two games.

Nov 7, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA;  Ohio State Buckeyes guard Sean McNeil (4) hits a three pointer during the second half of the NCAA men's basketball game against the Robert Morris Colonials at Value City Arena. Ohio State won 91-53. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch

Last season, the Buckeyes swapped lineups from game one to game two, but neither saw nearly as much playing time. A lineup of Jamari Wheeler, Meechie Johnson Jr., Justin Ahrens, E.J. Liddell and Key was on the court for 9:13 in the opener (and outscored 17-10), and then a starting lineup of Wheeler, Malaki Branham, Ahrens, Liddell and Key played together for 9:43 against Niagara and was outscored 21-19.

No other lineup has been used for even more than 10 minutes. Ohio State’s second-most-used lineup of Likekele, Roddy Gayle, Tanner Holden, Brice Sensabaugh and Felix Okpara has been on the court together for 8:28.

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Which Ohio State lineup has been the most successful?

That would again be the starting lineup, which might shed some light on why those five have played together so much so far. Against the Colonials, Ohio State’s starters were plus-10 (29 points scored, 19 allowed). Against the Buccaneers, they doubled that up and were plus-20 (31 points scored, 11 allowed).

Through two games, Ohio State’s starters are plus-30 (60 points scored, 30 points allowed). That adds up to 34.7% of Ohio State’s points scored and 27.5% of the points allowed in 20.1% of the minutes played.

The second-best plus-minus rating for a lineup belongs to one featuring Thornton, Gayle, Likekele, Sueing and Key. Although it didn’t play against Charleston Southern, this lineup outscored Robert Morris 14-2 (plus-12) in only 4:11.

How much has Ohio State played without a true center?

A calling card of this year’s team is the positional versatility the Buckeyes should be able to deploy. While that means sometimes Key will shoot 3-pointers, it also means that Ohio State entered the year expecting to play without a traditional center at times. For clarification, both Key and Okpara are considered the team’s true centers.

Nov 10, 2022; Columbus, OH, USA;  Ohio State Buckeyes guard Zed Key (23) shoots over Charleston Southern Buccaneers forward Taje' Kelly (14) during the first half of the NCAA men's basketball game at Value City Arena. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch

The Buckeyes spent exactly three minutes playing without either Key or Okpara on the court against Robert Morris. For 1:32, a lineup of Thornton, McNeil, Holden, Sueing and Likekele outscored the Colonials 6-1, and for 1:28 a lineup of Gayle, Holden, Sueing, Sensabaugh and Likekele outscored them 2-1.

Ohio State did not use any lineups without either Key or Okpara against Charleston Southern.

What has Ohio State done with Bruce Thornton and Isaac Likekele on the court together?

Thornton, a freshman, and Likekele, a fifth-year transfer, will primarily run the point for the Buckeyes this season. They’ve both been part of the aforementioned starting lineup, and owing to that they have logged significant minutes together.

Ohio State has played with Likekele and Thornton for 33:44 and outscored its opponents 82-34 (plus-48). Individually, Thornton is plus-6 (32 points scored, 26 allowed) in 12:51 without Likekele also on the court. Without Thornton, Likekele is plus-3 (37 points scored, 34 allowed) in 20:45.

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The Buckeyes have had Likekele, Thornton or both on the court for 67:20, or 84.2% of the first two games.

Who has the best individual plus-minus on Ohio State?

That award goes to Thornton. Although he’s only scored 11 points through his first two games, the freshman has a team-best plus-53 individual plus-minus rating for the Buckeyes. That puts him just ahead of Sueing and Key (both plus-51) and Likekele (plus-50).

Nov 7, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA;  Ohio State Buckeyes guard Bruce Thornton (2) dribbles at Robert Morris Colonials guard TJ Wainwright (1) during the first half of the NCAA men's basketball game at Value City Arena. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch

Thornton has not led the Buckeyes in plus-minus in either game. Sueing was a team-best plus-32 against Robert Morris and Key was a team-best plus-25 against Charleston Southern.

How many freshmen are playing together for Ohio State?

Ohio State has a five-man freshman class, four of whom are immediately assuming significant roles. Those four – Gayle, Okpara, Sensabaugh and Thornton – are joined by Bowen Hardman, who has been the final scholarship player to see action in both games.

The Buckeyes have featured four freshmen on the court together for a total of 5:53, and during that time they have gone plus-4 (17 points scored, 13 allowed).

Lineups with three freshmen have gone plus-6 (37 points scored, 31 allowed) in 22:48.

Lineups with two freshmen have gone plus-19 (35 points scored, 16 allowed) in 14:05.

And lineups with just one freshman are plus-39 (80 points scored, 41 allowed) in 33:09.


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