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2019-’20 Ohio State Buckeyes Basketball Season Preview

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BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Ohio State Buckeyes and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2019-’20 season.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Houston vs Ohio State Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019-’20 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2019-’20 ‘season with analysis on each program’s previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team’s starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local “insider” who covers said team.

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Perspective is often an overlooked aspect of college sports. In tpro sports, we have some pretty easy measures for success. Good teams make the playoffs and better teams advance and win championships. Divisions are relatively even and the cream rises to the top. Every team gets to draft and target free agents. And we don’t have to look at a program’s history, or adjust for things like strength of schedule or crazy seeding scenarios.

As you likely gleaned from the paragraph above, that’s not the case in college basketball. Perspective is everything. It’s why some programs celebrate the NIT or their name being called on Selection Sunday and others shrug about the concept of making the Big Dance. And a single-elimination tournament makes things even more complicated. One mistake and an entire season’s worth of work can go up in flames. Just ask Virginia about how much can ride on a single bucket or two in March.

Under Chris Holtmann’s leadership, Ohio State has occupied a slot somewhere in that discussion. The Buckeyes made the NCAA Tournament in each of his first two years with the program and have posted an impressive 45-24 overall record under his leadership. The first year was particularly noteworthy, as Ohio State finished 16th on KenPom, which was the program’s highest mark since the 2012-’13 season.

Generally speaking, it’s hard to criticize Holtmann’s overall job performance. Two NCAA Tournament appearances in two years is pretty solid and there aren’t many people who could have walked into Columbus when he got hired and delivered a top 15ish squad. The Buckeyes are also recruiting well, as they prepare to welcome the conference’s highest rated class per 247Sports this fall, highlighted by three top 50 recruits.

There are a lot of programs out there that would kill for that kind of performance.

However, things haven’t been perfect, either. Ohio State’s resume got killed by three losses to Penn State in Holtmann’s first year and regressed horribly down the stretch last season. If the Buckeyes hadn’t gotten Kaleb Wesson back for the Indiana game in the Big Ten Tournament, the team might have missed the NCAA Tournament altogether. Losses to underwhelming opponents like Illinois and Rutgers also stung.

This is where perspective matters. Ohio State has been pretty good since Holtmann arrived. In fact, one can argue they’ve been really good and borderline great over the last two years. But the upsets and close postseason losses have held the Buckeyes back. The question is whether the breakthrough is coming this time around.

So, will Ohio State get over the hill this year? Let’s take a look.

BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast

Along with reading BTPowerhouse’s season preview post for the Ohio State Buckeyes, make sure to check out the site’s podcast preview of the Buckeyes, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and Land Grant Holy Land Manager Matt Tamanini breaking down Ohio State’s roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2018-’19 Season Performance

  • Record: 20-15 (8-12)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #44
  • NET Rating: #52
  • Postseason Appearance: NCAA (R32)

There’s little debating that Ohio State took a step back on the court last season. Holtmann had a remarkable first year in Columbus and things were bound to come back down to earth a bit in year two. And that they did, as Ohio State dropped from 25 wins to 20 and from 16th on KenPom to 44th by season’s end. The Buckeyes also finished with a record under .500 in conference play for only the second time since 2004. The lengthened Big Ten slate certainly had an impact on that statistic, but that’s still not a good sign.

What’s so interesting about Ohio State’s performance last season was the team’s Jekyll and Hyde personality. The Buckeyes opened the season with a 12-1 record and actually reached 23rd on KenPom at one point. And it wasn’t a record built against weak competition, either. Ohio State beat Cincinnati on the road to open the season, Creighton on the road as well, and knocked off Illinois, Minnesota, and UCLA in December. It wasn’t Duke or North Carolina, but that’s a solid group of Power Five level teams. And the team’s only early season loss came to Syracuse as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.

But that’s when the wheels came off.

After jumping out to that 12-1 record, Ohio State lost five in a row and six of the team’s next seven games. That stretch included a loss to Rutgers and four losses by 10 points or more. And while the team did start to get back on track thereafter, Ohio State blew games to Illinois, Northwestern, and Wisconsin down the stretch. Those struggles took what appeared to be a sure-fire NCAA team and put it squarely on the bubble. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, the team managed to beat Indiana in its opening round Big Ten Tournament game to make the field on Selection Sunday. Ohio State was then able to upset Iowa State, before falling to Houston in the Round of 32.

There are certainly reasons to explain Ohio State’s split personality last season, such as a back-loaded schedule and opponents’ ability to focus in on Kaleb Wesson defensively. However, that will undeniably go down as this team’s narrative. The Buckeyes started out really well, collapsed, and got back on track briefly to finish things off. And it really was a last minute ordeal, as even another loss might have knocked the team out of the field of 64.

All told, it was a solid year. The win over Iowa State was a big one, but this wasn’t a great team. The Buckeyes finished 44th on KenPom and didn’t beat any top 25 KenPom opponents outside of the Cyclones. The good news for fans is that expectations weren’t incredibly high entering the year, so the team beat most predictions.

Highlights of the season included the non-conference road wins over Cincinnati and Creighton, the Big Ten wins over Iowa and Indiana, and the NCAA Tournament win over Iowa State. Low points of the season included the losses to Illinois, Northwestern, and Rutgers.

Individual statistical leaders were CJ Jackson, Andre Wesson, and Kaleb Wesson. Jackson led the team in assists and steals. Andre Wesson led the team in minutes. Kaleb Wesson led the team in points, rebounds, blocks, usage, and total win shares.

2. Offseason Exits

Despite making it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season, Ohio State actually isn’t losing that much from its roster this offseason. The players departing from last year’s roster are CJ Jackson, Joey Lane, Jaedon LeDee, and Keyshawn Woods. All told, that’s pretty light for a team that made it to the Round of 32 at season’s end.

The most significant departures of the group certainly come from Jackson and Woods. Both played around 70 percent of the team’s minutes and started for the team in the NCAA Tournament. Jackson arrived on campus as a transfer with the coaching staff hoping he could fill out the lineup, but turned into a pretty reliable point guard. Woods was also a transfer addition and grew from a nice bench player into a starter last season. Notably, Woods scored double-digits in seven of his final nine games, helping the team to make its final push toward the NCAA Tournament.

However, even if these two were solid contributors last season, neither was an All-Big Ten type of talent. The two were barely above 100 in offensive rating and Woods didn’t even emerge until late in the year. Woods became a really productive player, but it’s important to reiterate how much he grew. He was extremely inconsistent early in the season and wasn’t even a starter. What this tells us is that both of these guys look replaceable on paper.

The other two departures won’t be felt too significantly by the Buckeyes. Lane only played 39 minutes all season and LeDee didn’t really see the court at all as a freshman, other than when he filled in for a suspended Kaleb Wesson. This is one of those departures that really will only be felt in “lost potential” for the team considering his youth. Perhaps he could have emerged as a reliable backup big man this season. However, there’s nothing that sticks out about his play last season on paper.

This all leads us to a pretty clear conclusion. Ohio State isn’t losing all that much this offseason. Yes, two starters are departing, but one can make a decent argument that these were the most replaceable guys out there. The core of the roster from last season will remain.

3. New Additions

This season, the Buckeyes are bringing in a fantastic group of newcomers. This group includes five recruits, which are DJ Carton, Ibrahima Diallo, Alonzo Gaffney, and EJ Liddel. The team is also adding one transfer. Carton is listed as a point guard, Gaffney as a small forward, Liddell as a power forward, and Diallo as a center. Carton, Gaffney, and Liddell are rated as four-star prospects by 247Sports and Diallo is listed as a three-star.

The recruit receiving the most attention out of this group is Carton. He’s ranked 34th nationally by 247Sports and was recruited by a plethora of Big Ten powers. Carton is listed at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds and easily projects as a starter on day one of his college career. Carton is widely regarded for his great ball handling and his abilities as a defender. That should be a great fit with what Ohio State has down low with Kaleb Wesson.

Liddell and Gaffney are also top 50 prospects that should be able to see early playing time with the Buckeyes. Liddell is listed at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds and Gaffney at 6-foot-9 and 190 pounds. Both should be able to replace some of the lost contributions of Woods. Diallo looks more like a project player, but could be in line for the backup center role early on.

Ohio State will also be adding a transfer in Justice Sueing. He played for a dreadful California team last season, but played 85.9 percent of the team’s minutes and was pretty effective at getting to the rim. Unfortunately for Buckeye fans, he will have to sit out a season due to NCAA transfer rules. He will have two years of eligibility remaining thereafter.

CJ Walker should also be mentioned here. He transferred in from Florida State before last season and sat out 2018-’19 due to NCAA transfer rules. However, he will now be eligible for the Buckeyes. He came off the bench for the Seminoles during the 2017-’18 season, but did show some range and did a nice job at getting to the line. Fans will hope he can provide some additional depth in the backcourt.

Overall, there’s a lot to like about this group of newcomers for the Buckeyes. Carton looks like a day one starter, Liddell and Gaffney should be in play for minutes off the bench in year one, and Diallo could provide valuable depth upfront. And Sueing could be in play for a starting role next season. That’s pretty impressive considering what Ohio State already had coming back this season. This group should really fill out the roster well.

4. Points of Optimism

This may have already come across in some of the sections above, but there’s a lot to be excited about with regard to the Buckeyes this season. Last year’s group was pretty solid and the team returns most of its major contributors, has a potential All-Big Ten player in Kaleb Wesson, and adds a talented group of freshmen as well. And everything seems to fit together pretty well on paper. There’s a lot to like here.

The primary thing that has to have Buckeye fans excited is what returns to this roster. Ohio State returns three starters in Musa Jallow, Andre Wesson, and Kaleb Wesson and two other players with significant starting experience in Luther Muhammad and Kyle Young. Obviously, those five probably wouldn’t fit together for a great starting lineup, but that’s five starting caliber guys without even looking elsewhere. That’s a really nice core. Of course, it is worth noting that Jallow recently suffered an injury. We will have to see how he progresses.

And of course, that’s not all the team returns, either. Justin Ahrens and Duane Washington both return after decent freshmen seasons and the team is adding four freshmen that could contribute early this season, highlighted by Carton at point guard. Carton figures to be in the All-Big Ten Freshman race and he’ll be surrounded by a bunch of talented players with experience. He’s also a great positional fit for what already returns, with depth and experience on the wing and in the frontcourt. It’s kind of like having that final missing puzzle piece.

It’s also important to reiterate what Ohio State is bringing back in Kaleb Wesson. He was one of the Big Ten’s best big men last season and there’s no reason to think that will change this season. He was a monster on the boards and did a great job at facilitating the offense. The Buckeyes leaned on him heavily and he delivered. And with other weapons like Carton, that might not even be as necessary this year. That could make Wesson even more dangerous.

There are also a few wildcard players on this roster as well. We touched on them briefly above, but it’s not crazy to think that players like Muhammad, Washington, and Young could take sizable steps forward this season. All arrived with some recruiting hype and are still pretty young. If even one of them can grow from a solid starting option into a legitimate Big Ten starter, this team could be really dangerous.

5. Points of Concern

As we have discussed at length, there are a lot of reasons to be excited about the Buckeyes heading into this season, highlighted by the team’s numerous returning starters. However, there are some reasons to be concerned as well. Questions remain about how this team is going to grow beyond Kaleb Wesson offensively and as to how much some of the team’s younger players can be expected to contribute this season. Frontcourt depth also looks like something that could unravel this unit in big games.

Calling Ohio State’s offense one-dimensional last season would probably be a bit hyperbolic, but it’s a reasonable take on what held the Buckeyes back last spring. While Kaleb Wesson was a really good player for the team, Ohio State routinely overrelied on him last season. He not only had to initiate things offensively, but often had to score himself as well. Wesson dominated the ball and ended up finishing fifth in the league in percentage of possessions used while on the floor. That’s really high for a big man playing on an NCAA Tournament squad. While he remained efficient with a 109.7 offensive rating, he’s going to need more help if Ohio State is to reach its goals this year.

Unfortunately, teams that rely so heavily on one player often struggle against better defenses and that’s what happened for the Buckeyes. Despite having a top 25 defense, Ohio State only finished 84th nationally in offensive efficiency. The main reason? Ohio State really didn’t have any great playmakers outside of Kaleb Wesson. In fact, Duane Washington was the second player on the team in usage and he finished with an underwhelming 90.5 offensive rating. Simply put, when the team had to turn elsewhere, it didn’t have an answer.

And while it’s a different season, this is going to be the fundamental question for the Buckeyes. Can the team find another playmaker to go along with Kaleb Wesson? Fans are certainly hoping multiple will rise up, but it’s going to be necessary if this team is going to challenge the contenders in the Big Ten. Some of the most likely options will be Muhammad, Washington, and the freshmen, highlighted by Carton. Ohio State probably only needs one to legitimately break out to fix a lot of it’s offensive problems. However, easier said than done.

The youth of this team is also another thing that has to concern fans. College basketball has become a sport dominated by young players, but there’s always a lot of uncertainty with that as well. For instance, players like Muahmmad and Washington will decent as freshmen. However, can they take the next step? And with regard to the freshmen, how good will they be from day one? Many are optimistic about players like Carton, but who knows what he’ll be able to do in the first few months of the season. There’s always an adjustment.

Ohio State also has a potential roster issue on its hands in the frontcourt. Thanks to some recent attrition, the Buckeyes have a real question about who the team will look to behind Kaleb Wesson. And give his propensity for foul trouble, it needs to be answered if this team is going to compete nationally. Many will point to Diallo, but he’s a raw freshman that could need some time to develop. Fans will have to keep their fingers crossed.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, our season preview for Ohio State took the position that Kaleb Wesson was the clear pick to be the team’s best player. In pertinent part, the preview noted as follows:

Kaleb Wesson seems like a natural choice here. For one thing, he’s poised to take that classic freshman-to-sophomore leap. For another thing, I can remember another Ohio State sophomore who held down the 5-spot in Columbus not because he had elite height but because he had elite girth. Jared Sullinger worked out pretty well for the Buckeyes back in 2012.

Let’s compare freshman Wesson to freshman Sullinger.

Offensive rating: Wesson 123.2, Sullinger 120.4

Usage: Wesson 24.0%, Sullinger 27.0%

True Shooting Pct: Wesson 61.5%, Sullinger 59.1%

Offensive Rebound Pct: Wesson 13.8%, Sullinger 14.0%

Defensive Rebound Pct: Wesson 14.4%, Sullinger 26.2%

Assist Rate: Wesson 10.2, Sullinger 7.4

Defensive Block Pct: Wesson 3.6%, Sullinger 2.0%

Fouls Drawn Per 40: Wesson 6.1, Sullinger 6.8

I mean, holy cow. Apart from the fact that Sully was a much, much better defensive rebounder, the two players otherwise put up incredibly similar freshman numbers. I’m not saying Wesson is going to be as good as sophomore Jared Sullinger in 2012, but even freshman year Sullinger was a first-team All American.

It’s hard to disagree with any of the points made there. Wesson was Ohio State’s best player last season and should be once again this season. When he was off the floor, the team struggled significantly. Unless you believe a true freshman like Carton can outperform Wesson in year one, the pick here is pretty easy. Wesson figures to be Ohio State’s best player this season.

7. 2019-’20 Schedule Breakdown

  • 10/30 - Cedarville (Ex.)
  • 11/6 - Cincinnati
  • 11/10 - UMass-Lowell
  • 11/13 - Villanova
  • 11/18 - Stetson
  • 11/22 - Purdue Fort Wayne
  • 11/25 - Kent State
  • 11/29 - Morgan State
  • 12/4 - at North Carolina
  • 12/7 - Penn State
  • 12/15 - at Minnesota
  • 12/17 - Southeast Missouri State
  • 12/21 - Kentucky (Las Vegas, NV)
  • 12/29 - West Virginia (Cleveland, OH)
  • 1/3 - Wisconsin
  • 1/7 - at Maryland
  • 1/11 - at Indiana
  • 1/14 - Nebraska
  • 1/18 - at Penn State
  • 1/23 - Minnesota
  • 1/26 - at Northwestern
  • 2/1 - Indiana
  • 2/4 - at Michigan
  • 2/9 - at Wisconsin
  • 2/12 - Rutgers
  • 2/15 - Purdue
  • 2/20 - at Iowa
  • 2/23 - Maryland
  • 2/27 - at Nebraska
  • 3/1 - Michigan
  • 3/5 - Illinois
  • 3/8 - at Michigan State

Let’s be very clear here before we dive into this schedule. There are a lot of programs and leagues that make a living off avoiding tough games. Instead of going out and finding difficult non-conference opponents, plenty of programs will stay at home and play middling mid-majors. We’ve seen these numerous times in the Big Ten in recent years from teams like Northwestern and Rutgers. Ohio State had some years that teetered in this category.

This schedule absolutely does not fall into that category.

In fact, Ohio State’s going to have its hands full this season.

Not only do the Buckeyes get a loaded conference slate, but the marquee non-conference games here are really difficult. Ohio State gets Cincinnati and Villanova at home in November and then follows that up with a road trip to North Carolina and neutral site games against Kentucky and West Virginia in December. Four of the last eight national championships have been won by that group.

The start of Big Ten play also looks pretty challenging. Three of the team’s first five games are on the road, including trips to Indiana and Maryland. While Ohio State is favored in the three other games, it’s not crazy to think the Buckeyes drop one of those games as well. Getting through the stretch with a decent record could mean big things for the season.

Additionally, the final stretch of Big Ten play looks wild for Ohio State. Here’s the team’s final seven regular season games:

  • 2/15 - Purdue
  • 2/20 - at Iowa
  • 2/23 - Maryland
  • 2/27 - at Nebraska
  • 3/1 - Michigan
  • 3/5 - Illinois
  • 3/8 - at Michigan State

That stretch includes a road trip against Michigan State, a rivalry game against Michigan, and home showdowns with Illinois, Maryland, and Purdue. Four of those teams are in the top 25 on KenPom heading into the season and six at in the top 50. From a stats-perspective, that stretch is comparable to the six-game route needed to win the NCAA Tournament. So yeah, it’s not going to be easy.

All told, Ohio State is going to have a pretty entertaining schedule this season. If the Buckeyes can avoid some tough losses in non-conference play and handle themselves on the road against beatable opponents, this could be a monster year.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: DJ Carton (Fr.) - 75%
  • SG: Duane Washington (So.) - 65%
  • SF: Andre Wesson (Sr.) - 90%
  • PF: Kyle Young (Jr.) - 55%
  • C: Kaleb Wesson (Jr.) - 95%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

Since Holtmann arrived on campus, he’s done pretty well with the pieces left over from Thad Matta’s tenure. That isn’t meant as an insult to any of those players. In fact, some of them were great players for the Buckeyes. But no matter how you evaluate things, that’s how it’s felt for the last two years. Holtmann has been buying time until his recruits got on campus and were able to start contributing.

Well, this is the year.

For the first time since 2015, Ohio State enters the season with the potential to have a top end guard in the Big Ten. That’s no other than DJ Carton, who arrives on campus with more than his fair share of hype. I expect him to lock down the starting point guard position and emerge into one of the Big Ten’s best freshmen. Transfer guard Walker should compete with Carton for the starting spot. Both should be productive for the Buckeyes.

Alongside Carton, Holtmann will have a few options. Duane Washington seems like the most likely option after his freshman season, but don’t be surprised to see Musa Jallow and Luther Muhammad compete for playing time as well. Notably, Jallow is dealing with an injury that could keep him sidelined for some time. If healthy, expect all three to get some serious playing time at the two and three spots. Honestly, Jallow would probably be listed as a starter here if he was completely healthy.

The wing is arguably Ohio State’s most interesting position group coming into this season. That’s because it has the potential to be really good, but is far from proven. Andre Wesson returns for his senior season and is expected by most to start. However, it’s players like Justin Ahrens, Kyle Young, and the incoming freshmen that turn the most heads. All seem to have higher ceilings than what Andre Wesson has offered so far.

Gaffney and Liddell are both really intriguing. Both have the natural size to contribute at the three and four spots. And Both arrive with plenty of hype as top 50 prospects. Buckeye fans are hoping that they two can push for minutes early on. If Ohio State is going to overachieve this season, it’s because these two emerge in the months to come.

Upfront, there isn’t much discussion to be had. Kaleb Wesson will lock down the starting center position. Expect Young and Ibrahima Diallo to take the backup minutes there. Kaleb Wesson is the team’s best player and is expected to dominate playing time there. The only real thing Buckeye fans are hoping for is for a productive backup to emerge.

Ohio State figures to have one of the better starting lineups heading into this season. We will see whether it can live up to the hype and who emerges on the wing, but there’s a lot to like about what the Buckeyes are set to field this season.

9. Team Perspective From Matt Tamanini of Land Grant Holy Land

“The beginning of the 2019-20 men’s basketball season feels a little weird. For the first time since maybe 2012, there are legitimate, exciting expectations for the Ohio State men’s basketball program. They might not be national title expectations — or even really Big Ten title expectations — but they are expectations that the Ohio State Buckeyes are back to being one of the best teams in the conference and therefore, competitive nationally as well. Now, before you ask, obviously OSU was one of the best teams in the B1G in 2017 finishing the season 25-9 and tied for second in the league, but no one outside of the Schottenstein Center expected that going into the season.

The expectations have been building since head coach Chris Holtmann’s introductory press conference in June 2017. When Holtmann came to Columbus, he brought with him an energy and precision that had been lacking in the latter stages of the great Thad Matta’s tenure. That energy and precision have become the cornerstones of the program, and they have helped his teams overachieve in each of the first two seasons, because, to put it simply, they played well together. That will need to be the case this season as the Buckeyes will be looking to incorporate the Big Ten’s best recruiting class into a team with only one senior.

Kaleb Wesson is reportedly in the best shape of his career, and will join his older brother — and the team’s lone senior — Andre Wesson in leading the young Buckeyes into exciting territory that they haven’t be in for a number of years.” - Matt Tamanini.

10. Overall Season Outlook

By any reasonable evaluation, Ohio State overachieved in Holtmann’s first two seasons with the program. The Buckeyes had pieces, but hardly enough to suggest a group capable of a 45-24 overall record and two trips (and wins) in the NCAA Tournament. While things weren’t perfect, there were a lot of encouraging signs over those two seasons.

This season, however, Ohio State has real expectations. The Buckeyes are no longer viewed as one of the league’s weakest teams entering the season. Fans expect this team to compete for a quality seed in March and for at least the No. 2 spot in the league—only because Michigan State comes in with its own ridiculous expectations this year.

Ohio State’s primary challenge will be meeting its own lofty goals. And that’s a difficult task in itself. That might sound odd, but being the hunted is a lot tougher than being the hunter. The Buckeyes will enter the vast majority of the team’s games as favorites this year. Other teams are going to hoping to pull off the upset this time around. That takes a different level of discipline and motivation to overcome.

Additionally, it’s worth remembering that the core of this team is the same as last year’s squad, which ended up making the Big Dance, but just as easily could have missed it as well. Holtmann is trying to get a better dish with a lot of the same ingredients. And the new ingredients are almost all true freshmen. This year’s group are highly regarded and arrive with impressive rankings on the recruiting sites, but no freshman is a guarantee. Until we see them out there, we can’t be certain they will produce.

But even with those caveats, Ohio State figures to be one of the best teams in the Big Ten this season and should compete for a solid seed in the NCAA Tournament. And if things go right, perhaps this team can make it to the second weekend and beyond. My projection puts the Buckeyes at fourth in the league coming into this season.

Big Ten Prediction: 4th Place