Buckeyes relying on Sean McNeil, veterans to navigate games sandwiching Christmas break
It’s not visions of sugarplums that dance through the minds of college basketball coaches this time of year.
In a sport that runs from the fall through the spring, the Christmas season presents a specific challenge to basketball teams that otherwise don’t get many opportunities to see family. That means two games in particular, although usually against lower-level competition, annually lodge themselves in the minds of Division I coaches as ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.
For Ohio State, that has meant games against Maine and Alabama A&M have had coach Chris Holtmann on edge. The Buckeyes easily handled the first, posting a 95-61 win against the Black Bears on Dec. 21 before dispersing the following day for their final opportunities to return home until season’s end. On Thursday, the Bulldogs will travel to Value City Arena for Ohio State’s final nonconference game of the season.
To navigate this stretch, Holtmann said he has put the onus on his team’s veterans to make sure the Buckeyes are properly tuned into the challenge. On that list are sixth-year forward Justice Sueing, third-year center Zed Key and, increasingly, first-year Buckeye Sean McNeil, a West Virginia graduate transfer.
“Me being a transfer, it was a little bit tough for me to find my niche and my role here,” McNeil said. “Especially my voice. That took me a little bit. I knew I was an older guy with a lot of experience, probably more than anybody else on the team. I’m getting more comfortable in the sense of talking and using my voice.”
Sueing and Key were voted team captains by their peers during the preseason. A third captain, Isaac Likekele, has missed the past three games while attending to a personal situation back in Texas, and his status for Thursday’s game is unknown. Multiple players have had travel issues returning to Columbus, and Holtmann said that while the Buckeyes should be at full strength by Wednesday it’s not clear if that will include the Oklahoma State graduate transfer who started the first eight games of the year.
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In order to participate in games, players must be back and enrolled in classes for the start of spring semester, which is Jan. 10. The Buckeyes had a “good” fall academic semester and everybody is eligible, Holtmann said.
“At this point, I’m not sure when and if we’ll have the full complement of guys,” Holtmann said Tuesday afternoon. “At this point, I just don’t know. I just don’t have an answer. I should hopefully know more in the next couple days, but I couldn’t tell you right now.”
Without Likekele, Ohio State beat Rutgers, lost to North Carolina and beat Maine. The Black Bears were picked to finish last in the nine-team America East Conference, while Thursday’s opponent was picked to finish ninth in the 12-team Southwestern Athletic Conference.
There are things about the Bulldogs that have caught Holtmann’s attention. On both his weekly radio show and his subsequent meeting with reporters, Holtmann cited their ability to change defenses, their positional length and the fact that they had a 14-0 run at Illinois and a chance to win at Vanderbilt as reasons for concern.
“I thought our approach before Christmas was really good,” Holtmann said. “I’m anxious to see what our approach is after Christmas. We had a workout (Monday) night and you could see guys needed that. We needed to get up and down a little bit.”
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Still, Alabama A&M is ranked No. 327 nationally according to KenPom.com. The Bulldogs are 4-8 but have three wins against non-Division I opponents.
Are they capable of springing the upset, even on their best day? Holtmann said it’s on players such as McNeil to make sure the Buckeyes don’t find out. During his first year at West Virginia, McNeil said he took leadership notes from seniors Chase Harler and Logan Routt, both of whom will be in his wedding this June.
“It was great to learn from those guys, especially in a leadership and more vocal role on the team,” McNeil said. “I’m trying to do that more, especially as we wrap up the non-conference and start going into conference play.”
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Alabama A&M at Ohio State
When: 3 p.m. ThursdayTV: BTNRadio: 97.1 FM