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Ohio State basketball's fab four freshmen have no choice but to grow up fast | Rob Oller

Rob Oller
The Columbus Dispatch

As pivotal moments go, 1991 was a biggie for men’s college basketball. That year, the Fab Five arrived at Michigan, and from that point forward coaches were expected to win with freshmen.

When Michigan signed Chris Webber (rated No. 4 nationally), Jalen Rose (5), Ray Jackson (21), Jimmy King (24) and Juwan Howard (25), and as starters the freshmen quintet reached the 1991-92 NCAA Tournament national championship game − and did it again as sophomores − the pressure for programs to follow suit became enormous. 

Freshmen already were expected to contribute on the biggest stage; Michael Jordan’s jumper with 15 seconds left lifted North Carolina over Georgetown in the 1982 NCAA title game. But the Fab Five took things to another level.

Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann described his feelings of needing to play four freshmen as a mixture of anxiety and excitement.

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Coaches no longer enjoyed the luxury of bringing freshmen along slowly. Michigan proved that first-year players could take a program to the top.

Then in 2006 the NBA began requiring high school players to be at least one year removed from graduation before entering the draft, which created the one-and-done culture still in effect today, when blue chip recruits attend college for one year before leaving for the NBA. Suddenly, college coaches looked at their four- and-five star freshmen and realized, “Use them before you lose them.”

Fast forward to 2022. Chris Holtmann’s career tracks with the Fab Five and other first-year phenoms. The Ohio State men’s basketball coach was a freshman guard at Brescia College in Owensboro, Kentucky, the same year the Fab Five arrived in Ann Arbor. He was an assistant at Butler in 2013 when Kentucky signed six McDonald’s All-Americans who helped the Wildcats reach the 2014 NCAA championship game. Holtmann knows the power that talented freshmen wield, and this season he will better understand the pressure of having to win with them.

Bruce Thornton is one of four freshmen expected to play a lot for Ohio State this season.

The Buckeyes' 2022 recruiting class, ranked No. 8 nationally by 247Sports, includes a fab four who will be asked to step in and succeed immediately. No time to adjust to college life once the season begins Nov. 7 against Robert Morris. Fortunately for OSU, the breaking-in period began in early August with a trip to the Bahamas, where a roster in transition, including five freshmen (three-star shooting guard Bowen Hardman is the fifth), three transfers and two new walk-ons, got an early taste of what’s to come.

Given all the unknown, it should be quite the interesting 2022-23 season. There will be moments of marveling over freshman ability and wincing over freshman mistakes. What there won’t be is an excuse to lose, because the newbies enter with recruiting resumes that prevent the Buckeyes from using inexperience as a crutch against poor performance. The Fab Five and Kentucky ruined it for coaches that way.

Bruce Thornton, left, and Roddy Gayle are two of four freshmen expected to play a lot for Ohio State this season.

“We have four freshmen who are all going to play,” Holtmann said, referring to point guard Bruce Thornton, shooting guard Roddy Gayle Jr., small forward Brice Sensabaugh and center Felix Okpara, all four-star recruits. “They’ll go through some ups and downs and have some challenges, but … you’re going to see them be a part of every game.”

Holtmann spoke of needing to “normalize struggle” for his younger players – love that description – but his own struggle will be just as unfamiliar as he fights impatience. 

“It’s been more than we’ve ever had to do, with this number of young guys,” he said of getting his roster up to speed. “Not that they’re just young guys, but young guys we’re going to count on to play, so speeding up their development (is crucial). Again, I’ve not coached a team that’s counted on four freshmen as much as this group is going to.”

Brice Sensabaugh is expected to play a lot as a freshman. “Every practice, every possession, every dribble, there’s a lot on the line every time you step on the court,” he said.

Holtmann described his feelings as a mixture of anxiety and excitement, the latter tied to the anticipation of what the freshmen can become. If they become something close to what Malaki Branham was last season, when as a freshman the shooting guard played his way into becoming a first-round NBA draft pick, the Buckeyes will be just fine. If they underwhelm, well, winter will feel that much colder in Value City Arena.

With Branham (13.7 points) and E.J. Liddell (19.4) in the NBA, Ohio State lost 45% of its scoring off a team that finished 20-12, tied for fourth in the Big Ten and won its first game of the NCAA Tournament before bowing out against Villanova. The top returning scorers are Zed Key (7.8) and Eugene Brown III (3.5). 

Felix Okpara is one of four freshman expected to play a lot for Ohio State this season.

Clearly, two or three of the four freshmen need to be fabulous. Are they up to the task?

“Every practice, every possession, every dribble, there’s a lot on the line every time you step on the court,” Sensabaugh said. “I’m just ready to do the right thing. I’m a big listener. I feel like listening is a skill.”

Ohio State’s fab four will get to put that skill into practice soon enough, as in, “Listen, you need to grow up fast and do great things this season. It’s been done before.”

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD

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