COLUMBUS — While the Ohio State football team was busy making its way to the National Championship Game amid a global pandemic, the Ohio State basketball team was at the beginning stages of its own season.
The Buckeyes are 11-3 overall, 5-3 in the Big Ten. This team doesn’t look the way coach Chris Holtmann’s rosters have looked in the past. This version has found success despite losing its leading scorer for the past two seasons, Kaleb Wesson.
Here are four things to help get you caught up after wrapping up the football season.
1. Holtmann’s most versatile roster
This is easily the best roster Holtmann has had in Columbus. I’m not counting the 2017-18 season because that was a Thad Matta roster. Every player chose the Buckeyes knowing Holtmann would be his coach. That includes Kyle Young, whose relationship started with Holtmann still at Butler.
There isn’t much this group can’t do offensively. They aren’t an elite shooting team, but have three or four guys categorized as shot makers. Between E.J. Liddell, Justice Sueing, Seth Towns and Duane Washington Jr., Ohio State has players capable of going for 15-plus points if needed.
The strength is on the perimeter — a vast difference from the past two seasons. But in Young, you have a big who can finish around the rim; and freshman Zed Key gives you the option to play through the post if needed. Liddell is undersized at 6-foot-7 but plays much bigger than that, and his skill level makes up for the lack of size.
“The young man went from coming off the bench to being one of our best players and highlighted on the scouting report,” Holtmann said of Liddell. “That’s an adjustment period for anyone. He’s had a tremendous start to his sophomore year. He went from six points to 14. Every night he’s going to be a featured part of the other team’s scouting report. He’s just gotta continue to work.”
Then there are Justin Ahrens, Musa Jallow and freshman Eugene Brown III, whose roles are best defined as specialists. Ahrens is liable to have a game where he makes five to seven shots from 3-point range. Jallow and Brown are solid wing defenders.
Meechie Johnson Jr. (more on him later), Jimmy Sotos and C.J. Walker are the team’s point guards. Sotos and Walker are dealing with injuries, while Johnson just got here a few weeks ago and is trying to find his footing.
This team is better built to get through the Big Ten and make a deep NCAA Tournament run. The Buckeyes are no longer in a “Kaleb Wesson or die” mindset and shouldn’t go through the January slump that’s started to define the program.
2. An efficient Duane Washington Jr. is a lethal Duane Washington Jr.
Ohio State’s leading scorer has been in a constant tug of war with Holtmann about making smart decisions. At some point in every game, there comes the point where Washington throws up a shot that the Buckeyes can probably live without.
Against Northwestern on Wednesday night, that came with about two minutes left in the first half when the junior guard put up a wayward three-pointer early in the shot clock. The only fans in the stands are family members, so you can hear Holtmann’s reactions loud and clear. So when he puts up another with 50 seconds left in that half, you can hear Holtmann calling for Johnson to replace Washington.
There’s good and bad to Washington’s playmaking ability, and Holtmann’s dilemma often mirrors Ryan Day’s with Justin Fields for the past two seasons. It can give you anxiety when it doesn’t work out, but when it does, it’s magical.
Washington’s averaging 15.7 points this season, and he surpassed that in the first half on Wednesday against Northwestern. In his third year in the program, he’s starting to master that balance of when to be aggressive looking for his shot and when to make the right play for someone else. It’s leading to quality play, such as his 23 points and six assists against the Wildcats.
“What we’ve seen in this last string of games is a consistent, efficient Duane Washington,” Holtmann said. “When you get an efficient, consistent Duane Washington, he is what I’ve always believed, and that is a very good player. He is a very good player when he plays like that. … He has really committed himself to improving in that area.”
3. Meechie Johnson is going to be great
Fans are going to love watching the Buckeyes’ early-enrolled freshman, who’s spent the last two years of his life rehabbing a torn ACL. The kid who put up 50 points in a varsity game as a freshman while letting you know about every point has brought that same energy to Columbus.
His first college points on a three-pointer led to a Northwestern timeout. On the second make, he decided to say a few words to the defender, forcing Sueing to push him toward the huddle. He’s going to talk, even on the sidelines with a black mask over his face. Whenever fans are allowed back in the Schottenstein Center, he’ll quickly become a fan favorite.
“He’s full of confidence, and we love that about him,” Sueing said. “Being a point guard, you have to be able to carry a team and lead them the right way. He’s a young buck on the team, but he’s taking in all of the lessons and all the advice and criticism that we’ve been giving him. He got his little two threes off tonight and got his confidence going. We’re going to continue to build that for him.”
As a player, he’s a true point guard. You won’t see his scoring unleashed this season, which is focused on learning and contributing in a backup role behind Walker before fellow 2021 commits Malaki Branham and Kalen Etzler get here in June. Then the keys will be handed over.
When D.J. Carton transferred to Marquette, Ohio State lost its future point guard. Johnson isn’t the same explosive athlete, but his high skill level makes him just as effective.
“Meechie Johnson has really helped this team from Day 1 both in practice and now in games,” Holtmann said. “It says a lot about the kind of young man he is. He’s also fearless as a player. We knew that when we recruit him. There is a fearlessness to how he plays.”
4. The Big Ten tests are still coming
Ohio State plays in arguably the best conference in the country and is one of its six ranked teams. A 11-3 record is solid, but the best the Big Ten has to offer still awaits.
That started on Saturday when the Buckeyes won 87-81 at Illinois, ranked No. 14 after eight weeks. Ohio State is 3-1 against ranked Big Ten teams so far and will more than likely play at least four others by the end of the season, three of which are inside the top 10 right now.
The Buckeyes have a quality roster, but they haven’t been fully tested. The good thing is the pieces are there, and unlike in years past, there should be positives to take out of those games regardless of outcome.
“We’ve improved, we’ve grown, we’ve gotten better,” Holtmann said. “As I’ve said from the beginning, I really enjoy coaching this group, but we’ve got a lot of progress that we need to make to play in the best league in the country. That’s all our focus is on is how can we take from this and work on film tomorrow. Big-picture stuff can be looked at on another day.”