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2020-’21 Ohio State Buckeyes Basketball Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Ohio State Buckeyes and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2020-’21 season.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020-’21 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2020-’21 ‘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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So far, so good.

Since Chris Holtmann took over in Columbus, it’s been hard to complain about how the Ohio State Buckeyes have performed. The program has been a consistent winner, made two NCAA Tournament appearances, and would have made a third appearance last March if the postseason had been played. It’s been a vast improvement from the last few years under Thad Matta, when the program struggled to maintain national relevance.

However, with success comes new expectations. And fans are now wondering what comes next for Ohio State. Holtmann restored the program to national relevance, but the Buckeyes have yet to take that next step under his leadership. While things have been solid-to-good, they haven’t been great yet. The team narrowly fell short of a Big Ten title in his first season and has yet to make a serious run in the postseason. Things feel like they’re moving in the right direction. We just have to wonder when the team can break through that ceiling.

All of this brings us to this season. Ohio State enters this season with numerous questions after seeing substantial roster turnover over the last few months. Starters Andre Wesson and Kaleb Wesson both departed this offseason and that isn’t even to mention the transfers. DJ Carton, Alonzo Gaffney, and Luther Muhammad all transferred out of Columbus after contributing last year. And those departures turn what could have been a loaded roster into one with a lot of uncertainty, particularly as Holtmann tries to put his stamp on things.

It isn’t all bad, though. CJ Walker and Duane Washington return in the backcourt, Justin Ahrens and Kyle Young return on the wing, and Ohio State welcomes in some new additions, including marquee Harvard transfer Seth Towns and transfer guard Jimmy Sotos. The returners are all proven Big Ten players and both of the new additions are expected to play this season. And if Towns can live up to his significant hype, Ohio State has a shot at a really solid season.

So, can Ohio State get it down and reach the next level under Holtmann’s leadership?

Well, let’s dive in and take a look at this year’s Buckeyes.

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 Connor Lemons of Land Grant Holy Land breaking down Ohio State’s roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2019-’20 Season Performance

  • Record: 21-10 (11-9)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #8
  • NET Rating: #16
  • Postseason Appearance: N/A (Cancelled)

Ohio State’s performance last season was a bizarre one, and not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament. The Buckeyes were one of the most inconsistent teams you will ever see, taking massive swings between good and average during the season. And that’s not something you will see from teh team’s overall metrics.

Things started off with a bang for Ohio State. Expectations weren’t especially high entering the year, but the Buckeyes road out of the gate. The team beat a solid Cincinnati team to open the season, leveled Villanova a few days later, and reached 9-0 by early December. And while Ohio State had a misstep against Minnesota shortly thereafter, the team was eventually able to reach 11-1 and first nationally on KenPom by late December. By every traditional measure, Ohio State looked like it was on its way to a Big Ten title and some remarkable success in March.

Unfortunately, that’s when the wheels came off.

Ohio State would follow up its 11-1 start by losing four straight and six of its next seven games. The losses dropped the Buckeyes to 12-7 overall and 2-6 in Big Ten play. Most of the losses came against respectable opponents and away from home, but the damage was done. Ohio State’s conference hopes went up in flames during the seven-game stretch and the same can be said about many of the team’s postseason hopes. And that’s not something you typically say about a team that reached 11-1 overall and No. 1 on KenPom.

But the roller coaster reversed course from there.

After struggling for virtually all of January, Ohio State got back on track with a win at Northwestern and followed that up with solid wins against Indiana and arch-rival Michigan. And while the team did have a few late season missteps, it closed the regular season on a 9-3 run with its only losses coming against top 25 opponents away from home. That stretched pushed the Buckeyes to 21-20 overall and to 8th nationally on KenPom. And had we seen a postseason, Ohio State likely would have added even more to its resume there. We’ll never know for sure, but it’s hard to complain too much about that resume.

The highlights of the season came during the team’s blowout wins over Villanova and North Carolina, the neutral court win against Kentucky, and the regular season sweep of arch-rival Michigan. Conversely, the losses to Indiana and Minnesota stick out as sore spots.

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

2. Offseason Exits

After a pretty impressive 2019-’20 season, Ohio State suffered quite a bit of attrition before during and after the season. The Buckeyes lost a total of six players, including three starters. Those departures came from DJ Carton, Alonzo Gaffney, Danny Hummer, Luther Muhammad, Andre Wesson, and Kaleb Wesson. A bunch of these losses look significant.

The biggest departure will be Kaleb Wesson. He was the team’s best player last season and one of the league’s best big men over the last few years. He averaged 14.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game and finished with a 108.1 offensive rating on a massive usage rate. Perhaps the most impressive thing Wesson did was convert shots from deep, hitting 42.5 percent of his looks outside the three-point arc. And while Ohio State was a bit less dependent on his play last season than the year prior, he remained the team’s biggest contributor.

Andre Wesson and Muhammad are also notable departures. Both started more than 20 games for the Buckeyes last season, finished with offensive ratings well above 100, and played more than 60 percent of the team’s minutes last season. Wesson was a huge threat from deep (42.2 percent from three) and Muhammad did a nice job on the defensive end of the court and in the paint offensively. They were not program changing players, but both contributed more than their fair share.

The final three departures come from Carton, Gaffney, and Hummer. None of these look massive on paper. Carton left the team during the year and Gaffney and Hummer combined for only about 150 minutes during all of last season. Notably, Gaffney didn’t even play in any of Ohio State’s final five games. The biggest loss of this group comes from the long-term potential of Carton. He arrived on campus with big expectations, but left before he ever had a chance to get there. Losing him will leave a void in the backcourt moving forward, and you already saw some of it last season when he was sidelined.

Given Ohio State’s play last season, you had to expect some departures and that’s exactly what the Buckeyes got. These aren’t debilitating losses, but they are there and it’s going to take some work to overcome them. The frontcourt is losing quite a bit and seeing a player like Carton walk out the door is frustrating. It’s going to put a lot of pressure on the newcomers to contribute early.

3. New Additions

This season, the Buckeyes will be adding two recruits and three transfers. The recruits are Eugene Brown and Zed Key. Both Brown and Key are rated as three-star prospects by 247Sports. Brown is identified as a shooting guard by the recruiting site and Key as a center. The class was ranked 66th nationally.

While Brown is the incoming prospect receiving more attention out of the two, neither really stands out from the other. They rank 135th and 143rd respectively and both figure to be “sit and wait” type of prospects. Key could get some early playing time thanks to Ohio State’s thin frontcourt, but it’s hard to see him getting massive playing time. Expect these two to show up more down the line.

Ohio State will also be adding three transfers in Abel Porter, Jimmy Sotos, and Seth Towns. The Buckeyes will also be “adding” a new piece in Justice Sueing, who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. The transfers are expected to contribute substantially this season and at least two will be in playing for starting roles.

Towns is the player receiving the most attention. Here’s what I wrote about him in our top 25 countdown:

Sueing is also a player who could make a significant impact this year. He played for a dreadful California team during the 2018-’19 season, but put up respectable numbers. He played 85.9 percent of the team’s minutes and will see time at the three and four spots. Sueing is regarded as a decent defender and can drive the lane.

After Towns, Sueing is the player turning the most heads. He just missed our list of the Big Ten’s top 25 players. Here’s what I wrote about him there:

After sitting out the 2019-’20 season due to NCAA transfer rules, Sueing is now ready to go for the Buckeyes. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. The team is losing two huge contributors in Andre and Kaleb Wesson and need to find alternative scoring options. Sueing should be able to do that after averaging 14.3 points a game at Cal.

And while he was not remarkably efficient at Cal, Sueing played extensive minutes (88.3 percent of team minutes) and had one of the highest usage rates in the Pac 12. Fans will be hoping he can carry over his volume scoring and get just a tad better from outside the arc. If so, Sueing and Ohio State could be in for quite a season. He should be one of the better newcomers in the league this season.

The final two transfers are Porter and Sotos. Unfortunately, Ohio State announced Porter will be retiring from basketball on account of a medical issue. Meanwhile, Sotos arrives from Bucknell after playing massive minutes for the Bison last season. He received a waiver to get immediate eligibility this season and should contribute immediately off the bench. He is very much a pass-first point guard who will operate as a role player.

All told, Ohio State is adding quite a bit, with most coming from the transfer market. Expect Towns to be an immediate contributor and Sueing to challenge for starter minutes. Porter and the two incoming recruits should also provide some valuable depth.

4. Points of Optimism

There’s a lot to be excited about for the Buckeyes entering this season. Ohio State has a number of proven returners, is adding a plethora of talented pieces, and has the potential for multiple All-Big Ten candidates. Additionally, Holtmann has proven he knows how to get a mix of players to perform well together. Those are some real reasons to be excited about the Buckeyes heading into this season.

Let’s start with the returners. Ohio State returns three players who started games last season in Walker, Washington, and Young. And while none of the three dominated things for the Buckeyes last season, they’re all proven upperclassmen who know how to play under Holtmann. Their return gives the staff a nice core to build around. Walker remains a great passer, Washington showed some major potential from deep, and Young really grew as a rebounder and defender last season.

Ohio State will also be adding a number of talented new pieces. To start, Sueing and Towns both arrive as highly touted transfers and have the potential to start immediately for the Buckeyes. And the Buckeyes are also adding a depth piece in Sotos and the 2020 class, which features two decent prospects who could help off the bench. Ohio State also has a few rising underclassmen like EJ Liddell who could be poised for breakouts.

The star power is also here on the roster. Towns arrives with immense hype and has the chance to be an All-Big Ten player if he hits the ground running. Sueing is another player who should be able to contribute significantly. Likewise, Washington showed a lot of potential last season and could be in the running with improved consistency. Holtmann also has a great history of developing players, which makes you think all of these guys could see significant improvement in the months ahead.

From an on-court perspective, expect Ohio State’s wing group to excel. Sueing, Towns, and Young look like a great group. And while Young is going to have to play some extended minutes upfront, those are some great options. And it doesn’t even include some depth options like Justin Ahrens and freshman Zed Key. The team should also remain deadly from three with the addition of Towns and what Washington brings to the floor. And in today’s world of college basketball, that’s a great thing to have.

5. Points of Concern

Despite plenty of reasons for hope, there are also some legitimate reasons to be concerned about this group of Buckeyes as well. The team is losing some massive contributors from last season, will have to rely on a lot of (largely unproven) newcomers, and has some clear issues in the frontcourt. Overcoming these issues will be essential for team success.

The biggest obstacle will be overcoming the team’s substantial offseason departures. Both Wesson’s are gone and that doesn’t even mention Carton, Gaffney, and Muhammad, who all saw some playing time last season. That group includes two of the team’s top three players in total win shares and three of its top six. And considering both Wesson’s played similar roles, it’s easy to see why Ohio State will have some challenges replacing them.

The proposed replacements also aren’t a sure thing, either.

Ohio State added a lot of pieces this offseason to address these roster deficits, but most come from the transfer market. And while some transfers can hit the ground running, it’s a tricky area. Sometimes they work and sometimes they fail miserably. Transfers are always hit or miss. And Ohio State needs multiple transfers (Sueing and Towns, specifically) to contribute from day one.

The good news is Sueing and Towns arrive with plenty of hype. Both seem like quality players and Towns could very well end up being one of the best players in the Big Ten this season. However, both are moving from underwhelming teams (California and Harvard) into the nation’s toughest conference. And because of that, we can’t just assume things will work out. Losing Porter shortly before the season also stings. Ohio State projects to have one of its thinnest depth charts in years as a result.

Ohio State’s frontcourt also remains a massive concern. The Wesson’s dominated things upfront for the Buckeyes last season, but they’re both gone now. And unfortunately, there’s no obvious replacements. Ohio State is likely going to have to rely on an undersized Young at the five for segments. And the only other realistic options are Ibrahima Diallo and Liddel, who have both underwhelmed to date. It seems highly likely Ohio State will end up playing a severely undersized player upfront. And while that may hold up against some teams, it’s going to get exposed by teams like Illinois and Iowa in Big Ten play.

Holtmann and staff should have enough pieces to overcome these issues. However, all of these will have to be addressed for the Buckeyes to finish near the top of the Big Ten yet again.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, there wasn’t much doubt about Ohio State’s best player. It was Kaleb Wesson and there wasn’t a close second. However, with Wesson’s departure for the NBA this offseason, there’s a big void for someone else on Ohio State’s roster to fill.

The front runner for this spot right now appears to be Towns. He arrives with plenty of hype after posting some impressive numbers at Harvard. And with some major question marks for the team offensively, there’s going to be plenty of opportunities for him.

Here’s what I wrote about Towns in our top 25 player countdown.

Harvard wasn’t great in either of the seasons with Towns on the roster. However, he was really productive offensively and a sniper from deep, hitting 49.3 percent of his three-point attempts in his sophomore season, which led the Ivy League. He also maintained a 113.9 offensive rating during conference play with heavy usage numbers, which is a really encouraging sign about his long-term potential.

It’s also important to stress the diversity of Towns’ contributions in Cambridge. He played multiple spots and contributed with and without the ball in his hands. Towns also ranked as one of the best passers in the Ivy League in his final season with the Crimson and had a really good steal rate.

. . .

There’s little debating Towns projects to be a starter and a quality player for the Buckeyes this season. He’s an ace shooter that can do enough elsewhere to challenge defenses and opposing ball handlers. The biggest questions will be about his recovery from injury and how he fits with Ohio State’s other contributors. Towns dominated possessions with Harvard. That won’t happen with the Buckeyes.

Expect Towns to be an instant starter and a quality contributor for Ohio State. If things go right, he should be in contention for an All-Big Ten spot by season’s end. However, we’ll have to see who fits in alongside him in Ohio State’s lineup. Fans should be excited about what the forward can do this season.

Outside of Towns, there are a multitude of players in similar positions. Players like Walker and Washington are back after decent seasons, but it’s hard to see either taking monstrous steps forward. One other dark horse if Sueing, who transferred in from California. Here’s what I wrote about Sueing in our top 25 countdown, where he just missed the cut:

After sitting out the 2019-’20 season due to NCAA transfer rules, Sueing is now ready to go for the Buckeyes. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. The team is losing two huge contributors in Andre and Kaleb Wesson and need to find alternative scoring options. Sueing should be able to do that after averaging 14.3 points a game at Cal.

And while he was not remarkably efficient at Cal, Sueing played extensive minutes (88.3 percent of team minutes) and had one of the highest usage rates in the Pac 12. Fans will be hoping he can carry over his volume scoring and get just a tad better from outside the arc. If so, Sueing and Ohio State could be in for quite a season. He should be one of the better newcomers in the league this season.

We’ll see what happens, but Towns seems like the safe pick. Fans should also keep an eye on freshmen Brown and Key. Both look like decent prospects.

7. 2020-’21 Schedule Breakdown

  • TBA - Unknown
  • 12/2 - Morehead State
  • 12/5 - Alabama A&M
  • 12/8 - at Notre Dame
  • TBA - Unknown
  • 12/19 - vs North Carolina (Cleveland, OH)
  • TBA - Unknown

Normally, I would use this space to dive into Ohio State’s schedule, the biggest games on the slate this year, and some expectations for how the team should perform. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the erratic scheduling changes, we don’t know much about the schedule at the moment. The Buckeyes have announced more than other teams, but it’s hard to get a full grasp of how things might look just yet.

As far as what we do know, it’s clear Ohio State will have at least two to three marquee non-conference games, including the showdowns with Notre Dame and North Carolina listed above. We also know Big Ten play will be pretty bizarre this year, as arenas will almost certainly have reduced capacity, if anyone is able to attend at all. That will be particularly important for the Big Ten, which has led the nation for years in fan attendance. Expect road games against teams like Indiana, Michigan State, and Wisconsin to be much easier this time around.

Ohio State will certainly have a tough schedule like it always does. Expect some marquee games in mid-February to early March where the team can score some big wins to help its NCAA Tournament resume.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: CJ Walker (Rs. Sr.) - 95%
  • SG: Duane Washington (Jr.) - 85%
  • SF: Justice Sueing (Rs. Jr.) - 95%
  • PF: Seth Towns (Rs. Jr.) - 95%
  • C: Kyle Young (Sr.) - 80%

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

A few weeks ago, Ohio State’s projected lineup looked pretty uncertain. The team had a litany of newcomers vying for multiple positions. However, Abel Porter retired from basketball and we got a few tidbits about the Buckeyes. And with those announcements, things became a lot more certain.

In the backcourt, Walker and Washington will lock things down once again. The two are both upperclassmen and are largely known quantities at this time. Walker projects to be one of the better passers in the Big Ten this season and Washington should remain a quality shooter from deep. Fans will hope Washington can take another step forward this season.

Things are substantially less certain behind those two. Sotos will be the primary reserve at the point and Musa Jallow and true freshman Brown will likely see time as well. However, all three remain significant question marks. Brown and Sotos both arrives with mixed profiles and Jallow has injury concerns. Justin Ahrens could also be an option here if things get rough. Overall, the depth here will remain a concern, especially if either of the starters get banged up during the season.

On the wing, Ohio State will almost certainly rely on the two transfers in Sueing and Towns to start. Both come with high expectations and should be able to produce offensively. The Buckeyes have some nice depth behind them as well, with Ahrens, Liddell, and Key. Additionally, Young could also play at the four if needed. There’s little debating this is the deepest part of Ohio State’s team this season.

However, the frontcourt looks a little sticky. Ohio State enters this season without a proven option at the five. Kaleb Wesson is now gone and there’s a big void behind him. Liddell and Young saw some time at this position before, but neither is a natural fit for the position. And while Diallo is a better fit, he’s a huge question mark after playing just a few minutes last season.

Because of these issues, I expect Young to slide into the starting lineup and for the Buckeyes to play small ball for much of the season. It’s going to be an issue against the bigger teams, but it’ll probably be fine against everyone else. Expect Liddell and Diallo to rotate through behind him. Key might also get a look here if things get rough.

Outside of the center position, things look pretty solid for Ohio State’s lineup entering this season. There are some depth questions, but there isn’t much uncertainty here. And in a bizarre season, that’s not a bad spot to be in.

9. Outside Perspective From Connor Lemons Of Land Grant Holy Land

“There may not be a team in the Big Ten this season with a bigger difference between their floor and ceiling than the Ohio State Buckeyes. By that, I mean the difference between the absolute worst case scenario and the absolute peak potential of the team. While the Buckeyes undoubtedly are rolling out their most talented roster of the Chris Holtmann era, they’ll also bring over some pretty serious injury concerns that are carrying over from previous seasons.

The Buckeyes landed two major difference makers via transfer this offseason with Seth Towns (formerly of Harvard) and Jimmy Sotos (formerly Bucknell). Towns, the 2017-2018 Ivy League Player of the Year, has not played competitive basketball in two years due to a major knee injury, and Chris Holtmann still isn’t certain if he’ll be ready to play later this month when games tip off. Justice Sueing, who led Cal in scoring during the 2018-2019 season, sat last season due to NCAA transfer rules, and is now eligible to play for Ohio State. However, he too is coming off of foot surgery, and it is yet to be seen if he’ll be the same type of player that he was at Cal following a year off and major surgery on his foot.

Kyle Young has essentially dealt with every lower body injury possible during his collegiate career, with the most recent being a high ankle sprain towards the end of last season. During his time at Ohio State he has sustained injuries to both legs, and it’s certainly not a guarantee that they’ll be able to hold up for a whole season. Musa Jallow, who Chris Holtmann has repeatedly called Ohio State’s best and most versatile defender, was forced to redshirt last season after undergoing ankle surgery in the fall. He should be 100% soon, but the question remains how the ankle holds up over the course of a full season.

The guarantees? Duane Washington Jr. is poised to take a step forward after finishing as Ohio State’s second-leading scorer last year. The same goes for E.J. Liddell, the 6’7” 240 pound sophomore forward who has more than a little bit of Jared Sullinger in his game. And CJ Walker, one of the most sure-handed point guards in the country, is back for his final collegiate season.

If all goes right and everyone is healthy, Ohio State could be raising a Big Ten championship banner at the end of the season. But if those nagging injuries rear their heads and half the team is compromised, it could be a whole different story.” - Connor Lemons.

10. Overall Season Outlook

At face value, it’s hard to look at this Ohio State squad and not think it’s a rebuilding season. The team is losing its best player and two of its top three contributors. And while the team added a ton in the offseason, it’s hard to see them addressing all of the team’s needs. This is especially true given the unfortunate news for Jallow and Porter in recent weeks.

The good news is Ohio State returns some key players in Walker, Washington, and Young. The Buckeyes also get Jallow back and add marquee transfers in Sueing and Towns. That should be more than enough to field a functional lineup in Big Ten play. And if one of the freshmen or rising underclassman outperform expectations, there are some legitimate reasons to be hopeful about this team moving forward.

All told, expect Ohio State to be in serious contention for an NCAA Tournament bid and for a top half finish in a stacked Big Ten. However, there are just too many questions to feel confident about the team accomplishing much more.

Big Ten Prediction: 8th Place