While last season ended in about the most demoralizing way you could find, as they became the latest team to lose to a 15 seed by losing to Oral Roberts in the NCAA Tournament. While last season ended poorly, it shouldn’t be forgotten that for much of last season, the Buckeyes were one of the top teams in the sport and were one of the great surprises. This season the Buckeyes return EJ Liddell, who looks poised to be an All-American, and while much of their backcourt is gone, they added good pieces around the margin and will now be poised to have another high finish in the Big Ten, while they will look to exact revenge in the NCAA Tournament.
EJ Liddell will be the star for this team, Liddell is a reigning First Team All-Big Ten player, who will be one of the top candidates for Big Ten Player of the year this season. Liddell is a good interior scorer, rebounder, and defender, who is somewhat of a throwback four-man, he dominates the game from the post and is great at scoring around the rim, while he can space the floor with his three-point shot. The question is now whether he can be a true takeover player and become close to 20 point-per-game scorer.
While CJ Walker and Duane Washington Jr are both gone, the Buckeyes add in a duo of transfers to fill in the starting rotation. Jamari Wheeler represents the likely starting point guard for this seasons team, Wheeler is a solid lead guard, who can shoot it, play tough physical on-ball defense, and has the ability to set the team up, although he definitely will need to improve when it comes to taking care of the ball, as he turned it over way too much a season ago. Cedric Russell represents the two-guard for this team, Russell is a really good shooter and scorer, who will play off the ball, and be a good replacement for Duane Washington Jr, as both players shoot it at a high level but also give some of that back on the defensive end. Justice Sueing should start on the wing, at 6’7, he has a unique ability to run the point at times, while he’s a very versatile scorer, a good rebounder, and can space the floor, but he definitely needs to improve defensively to unlock his full potential.
Pairing next to Liddell, Kyle Young looks to be a good piece for the Buckeyes as he’s returning for a super senior season at Ohio State. Young is a good interior scorer, rebounder, and defender, who is one of the most efficient scorers in the Big Ten, while he’s also someone that will do whatever it takes to win the game, as he is a great glue guy and is willing to dive on the floor for loose balls. Zed Key will fill in at the 5 for major minutes and does present the team with the center of the future, Key is a 6’8 bruising big man who when on, is unstoppable on the block, although consistency will be key to him getting more minutes. Should former All-American honorable mention, Seth Towns stay healthy, the Buckeyes will have a 6’8 forward that is efficient at scoring from all three levels on the court, although relying on him staying healthy is like relying on Ben Simmons to make a free throw. Joey Brunk should be a good bruising big man who will dominate playing walk-ons in non-conference play when the Buckeyes are up by 30, but if he plays in a close game it will be because the rest of the bigs fouled out.
The Buckeyes have a good duo of young guards that have some talent to work with. Malaki Branham is a 6’4 scoring guard, who is good at getting to the rim, while he has a silky smooth jumper to keep defenses honest. Branham probably starts the season on the bench but seems poised to move his way into the starting rotation as the season goes along. Meechie Johnson could also get some minutes, Johnson was not ready a season ago when he joined mid-season but give him a full offseason and he should fill a nice role as a backup guard. Add in Justin Ahrens, who is a junior who is a lights-out shooter, and this is a really talented rotation that has an abundance of depth.
This is one of the deepest rosters in the country, with a great group of players who would start on most high major teams. The offense is going to be great as it was a season ago, but how will the defense improve? My personal theory is that the Buckeyes should try to try a full-court and wear teams out by trying to force turnovers, which would allow them to take advantage of their depth advantage and allow the offense to score in transition. It may not be a long-term solution but Chris Holtmann should at least try it out should the defense struggle. Playing a zone defense could also help out because they are pretty long on the wing and that would at least trick opponents on the offensive end. I’m not saying that they need to do these things all the time but if they stick in their man-to-man defense all season long, it’s back to the same old team that the Buckeyes had a season ago.
The offense is going to put up points at a high level, EJ Liddell will continue to play like an All-American, while the defensive rotations will be lacking and opponents’ guards will take advantage of a backcourt that can’t defend at a high level. Turnovers also will rue this team, as Wheeler isn’t a good point guard and he’s probably the best option they have at that spot. This team will play plenty of games in the 70s and 80s, win a lot of games just by having a boatload of talent, and ultimately fall to a team with good guard play come NCAA Tournament time.
PG: Jamari Wheeler
SG: Cedric Russell
SF: Justice Sueing
PF: EJ Liddell
C: Kyle Young
B1: Zed Key
B2: Malaki Branham
B3: Justin Ahrens
B4: Seth Towns
B5: Meechie Johnson