San Diego State, Maui Invitational to provide first true tests for Ohio State basketball

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

LAHAINA, Hawaii – A coach complimenting his or her upcoming opponent isn’t often much to write home about. Along those lines, a few positive words from Texas Tech’s Mark Adams on San Diego State during Sunday morning’s press conference to preview the Maui Invitational might seem like little more than window dressing.

The Aztecs “might have the best defense I’ve seen in a while,” Adams said.

The twist is that Adams’ Red Raiders will open tournament play with Creighton, not San Diego State. That task falls to Ohio State, which is expected to face a significant step up in level of competition after three wins against low-major teams to open the season.

The Buckeyes enter Monday’s game with the third-worst non-conference strength of schedule ranking in the nation according to KenPom.com. The Aztecs are a top-20 team and will present the first of what could be three actual tests for Ohio State while in Maui.

“This is clearly a step up in competition,” Holtmann said after participating in a press conference featuring all eight coaches in this year’s event. “I think they’re one of the top 10, 15 teams in the country right now. They could beat anybody on any given night. They’re terrific. They’re physical. This is elite competition we’re playing.”

How Ohio State will handle that is anybody’s guess. The Buckeyes are relying on seven players new to the program (four freshmen and three transfers) to assume primary rotation roles on an overhauled roster, and so far it’s been a mostly smooth transition.

Maui Invitational:As Ohio State basketball heads to Maui, most recent Buckeyes to make trip recall struggles

Freshman Brice Sensabaugh is the first freshman to open his career with three double-digit scoring efforts since Jared Sullinger in 2010-11, and he leads the team in scoring at 17.0 points per game. Third-year center Zed Key is averaging a double-double at 13.3 points and a team-best 12.3 rebounds per game. Collectively, Ohio State ranks 30th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 41st in adjusted defensive efficiency.

That all portends a balanced team, one built on versatility that will hopefully help the Buckeyes overcome a perceived lack of true star power. Now they’ll have their first chance to sift reality from illusion against a San Diego State team with the nation’s eighth-ranked defense.

“They’re going to be a great test for us,” sixth-year forward Justice Sueing, who is averaging 12.3 points and 3.0 rebounds in his return from a medical redshirt season. “It’s the first game of this next couple weeks of really big games to test us and throw us into the fire. They’re a great team, really aggressive, play really hard on defense. They have a lot of tools. It’s going to be a great game, but we’re not going to back down. We’ve been preparing great for them, I think.”

By the time they go to bed Wednesday night, the Buckeyes will have a better understanding of where they actually are as a team. It certainly won’t all be good news, and the possibility exists that the results could be largely unpleasant.

Win or lose, that information is something Holtmann said the coaching staff is looking forward to attaining.

“I think just learning, getting immediate feedback on what you have to do as a team to improve,” he said when asked what he hopes to get out of the program’s first appearance in the Maui Invitational in 19 years. “That’s it. College basketball is different (than football) in that one or two losses don’t hurt you. In some ways, they really help you. You’re OK getting tested. Matter of fact, you want that early as a coach. That’s the biggest reason.”

Let the learning begin.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

 Get more Ohio State basketball news by listening to our podcasts