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2021-’22 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 2021-’22 season.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oral Roberts at Ohio State Joshua Bickel-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021-’22 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2021-’22 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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Evaluating last year’s Buckeye squad is a difficult task. By every traditional measure, Ohio State was a good (and maybe even great) team. The Buckeyes went 21-10, finished 11th on KenPom, earned a two seed to the NCAA Tournament, and came within a bucket of winning the Big Ten Tournament. Most programs would kill for a performance like that.

Unfortunately, the summary above also ignores the crushing missteps last season, which included a pathetic close to the regular season, missed opportunities against Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament, and a disastrous loss to Oral Roberts in the first round of the Big Dance. Even if the team’s resume was solid, those moments are going to sting.

And that’s the goal for Ohio State this year.

To put those moments to rest.

The good news is Chris Holtmann and his staff have some great pieces to work with this season. EJ Liddell and Kyle Young return in the frontcourt and the program is adding some notable players as well, including Jamari Wheeler from Penn State. If all goes well, this figures to be another Final Four caliber squad.

So, how far can Ohio State go? Let’s take a look.

1. 2020-’21 Season Performance

  • Record: 21-10 (12-8)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #11
  • NET Rating: #13
  • Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (R64)

Last season was a successful one in Columbus. Despite a slow start, Ohio State finished as one of the top teams in the Big Ten and narrowly missed taking things to the next level and winning the Big Ten Tournament. And that campaign was ultimately enough to earn the Buckeyes a two seed in the NCAA Tournament. It’s hard to look at that run without respect. Few teams could have 21 games against the slate Ohio State faced.

Unfortunately, the missteps en route to those 21 games aren’t easy to overlook. The loss to Michigan in February ended a seven-game winning streak, the loss to Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament cost the Buckeyes a Big Ten Tournament title, and an upset against Oral Roberts in the first round of the NCAA Tournament was easily one of the most shocking of the entire season. Even if the overall season was successful, those moments were so rough it’s hard to remember the positives.

But even if those missed opportunities feel rough, we can’t lose the forest for the trees. This was a good Ohio State team that simply fell a few possessions short when it counted most. The Buckeyes beat a plethora of great opponents, including teams like Illinois, Iowa, Notre Dame, UCLA, and Wisconsin. That can’t be overlooked.

Highlights of the season included the non-conference wins over Notre Dame and UCLA, the seven-game winning streak during Big Ten play, and the dramatic wins over Purdue and Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament. The low points were the early losses to Northwestern and Minnesota, the loss to Michigan in late February, and the upset loss against Oral Roberts in the NCAA Tournament.

Individual statistical leaders were EJ Liddell, Justice Sueing, CJ Walker, and Duane Washington. Liddell led the team in rebounds, blocks, and total win shares. Sueing led the team in steals. Walker led the team in assists. Washington led the team in minutes and points.

2. Offseason Exits

Ohio State lost a handful of key players this offseason, including arguably the team’s best player. The departures were Jansen Davidson, Ibrahima Diallo, Musa Jallow, Abel Porter, CJ Walker, and Duane Washington. Their exits will leave Holtmann and his staff with some challenges this season.

The most significant departure is certainly Washington. He led the team in minutes and points and was easily the team’s most consistent and productive offensive option. And that included some of the team’s biggest games, when Washington often went off in the second half. In fact, Washington ranked fifth in the league in percentage of shots taken while on the floor. He was also one of the team’s most effective passers.

Ohio State’s other notable departures were Jallow and Walker. Both played consistently last season and started at least some of the team’s games. Walker was a consistent force in the backcourt and led the team in assist rate. Meanwhile, Jallow was a bench piece who saw major playing time late in the year, including 32 points in the team’s NCAA loss to Oral Roberts. These are replaceable departures, but will only add to the loss of Washington in the backcourt. Ohio State will have some real questions there coming into this season.

The final departures of Davidson, Diallo, and Porter won’t turn many heads. The three combined for 17 minutes last season. And while some of that had to do with injury issues, it’s hard to panic too much over losing those kind of minutes.

3. New Additions

This season, the Buckeyes will be adding two new recruits and three transfers. The recruits are Malaki Branham and Kalen Etzler. Branham is rated as a four-star prospect and Etzler as a three-star. According to 247Sports, Branham is a shooting guard and Etzler is a power forward.

https://247sports.com/college/ohio-state/Season/2021-basketball/Commits/

Both recruits arrive with decent attention, but Branham certainly pops more. He’s a top 40 prospect in the 2021 class and should have a chance to get early playing time, especially with the departures of Washington and Walker. He is listed at 6-foot-4 and 175 pounds and was the highest rated player in the State of Ohio. Etzler will have to battle to get playing time, largely thanks to the depth in front of him.

The transfers are Joey Brunk, Cedric Russell, and Jamari Wheeler. Brunk and Wheeler both arrive from Big Ten programs, so they should be very familiar to fans. Brunk played for Indiana and Wheeler played at Penn State. Expect Wheeler to grab the starting point guard role and for Brunk to provide valuable depth behind Liddell and Key. Meanwhile, Russell arrives after four seasons at Louisiana. He is listed at 6-foot-2 and should be a depth option in the backcourt.

4. Points of Optimism

There’s a lot to be excited about for this year’s Buckeye squad. Ohio State returns a talented core from last season, has star power, and adds some talented new pieces. All of that should put the team in contention for another NCAA Tournament appearance and the Big Ten title. There’s a lot to like here.

Let’s begin with the overall roster itself. As noted several times so far, Ohio State was a solid team last season. And many of the key contributors from that team return to campus this fall. The team returns three starters and a handful of bench options, including players with room to grow like Eugene Brown, Seth Towns, and Zed Key. Even if the team loses Washington and Jallow, that’s a heck of a core to build around.

Those returners also bring legitimate star potential. Liddell looks like a potential first team All-Big Ten player, Sueing is a valuable guy on the wing, and Young has proven himself to be one of the better players in Big Ten play. And anytime you start with three All-Big Ten caliber players, you’re probably going to have success. Players like Ahrens and Towns also still have potential to grow, specifically with Towns, who dealt with injury issues last year.

Ohio State is also adding some notable additions this offseason, who should fill some of the team’s holes in the lineup. Wheeler should start at the point, Branham and Etzler should help on the wing, and Brunk should be a nice depth option down low. None of the additions look like “can’t miss” superstar contributors, but they should be productive and the Buckeyes don’t need any superstar additions. There’s already a nice base here.

5. Points of Concern

Fortunately for Buckeye fans, there aren’t a ton of areas of concern for Ohio State entering this season. This is a team with a solid returning core that addressed most of its roster shortcomings this offseason. However, there are some questions for the team’s big picture and overall goals.

Of course, the biggest questions will have to do with Washington’s departure. While he was just one starter last season, it’s hard to understate his importance to the team, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. Washington led the team in minutes (by a pretty decent margin) and ranked fifth in the league in percentage of shots taken when he was playing. More simply stated, he played a ton and was a huge part of the team’s offense when he was on the floor. Those are going to be some big shoes to fill.

The team’s underwhelming defense also remains a concern. Ohio State finished 82nd in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, which isn’t terrible, but pales in comparison to most of the teams atop the national rankings. In fact, Ohio State had a weaker defense than anybody among KenPom’s top 23 last season and the second weakest among the top 35.

Having an underwhelming defense is fine, but that isn’t going to cut it.

The imbalance on the roster also looks like a potential concern. While the frontcourt looks great, the backcourt is filled with question marks. We know players like Wheeler can function in the Big Ten, but at the level the Buckeyes need to be a national contender? We’ll have to wait and see.

6. Top Player

Ohio State enters this season with a clear leader for its top player. Liddell returns after a phenomenal 2020-’21 campaign and was a unanimous selection on the preseason All-Big Ten team. He’s one of the league’s most skilled forwards and can contribute at both ends of the court, creating his own shot and defending in the paint. And if he can make even modest improvements there, the sky’s the limit.

If anybody is going to challenge Liddell on the roster, it’s going to be a serious surprise. Potential contenders are Wheeler, Towns, and Young. Wheeler put up solid numbers at Penn State and could bring more to the table with a pretty roster around him, Towns put up massive numbers at Harvard before he got injured, and Young has been a consistent contributor for the Buckeyes. However, Liddell seems like the easy pick here.

7. 2021-’22 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/1 - Indianapolis (Exh.)
  • 11/9 - Akron
  • 11/12 - Niagara
  • 11/15 - Bowling Green
  • 11/18 - at Xavier
  • 11/22 - Seton Hall (Fort Myers, FL)
  • 11/24 - California/Florida (Fort Myers, FL)
  • 11/30 - Duke
  • 12/5 - at Penn State
  • 12/8 - Towson
  • 12/11 - Wisconsin
  • 12/18 - Kentucky (Las Vegas, NV)
  • 12/21 - Tennessee Martin
  • 12/28 - New Orleans
  • 1/2 - at Nebraska
  • 1/6 - at Indiana
  • 1/9 - Northwestern
  • 1/13 - at Wisconsin
  • 1/16 - Penn State
  • 1/22 - Nebraska
  • 1/27 - at Minnesota
  • 1/30 - at Purdue
  • 2/3 - Iowa
  • 2/6 - Maryland
  • 2/9 - at Rutgers
  • 2/12 - at Michigan
  • 2/15 - Minnesota
  • 2/19 - Indiana
  • 2/24 - at Illinois
  • 2/27 - at Maryland
  • 3/3 - Michigan State
  • 3/6 - Michigan

For a team expectected to contend for a Big Ten title and more in March, this is about as good of a schedule as you can get. Ohio State gets an intriguing non-conference slate and a Big Ten schedule loaded for marquee matchups, including showdowns with arch-rival Michigan and Illinois in the closing weeks of the season.

Non-conference play will be highlighted by three key matchups. The Buckeyes face Xavier on the road in late November, Duke at home as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, and Kentucky in Vegas in late December. All three of those games have sizzle and should come with some massive March implications. Those games are going to give the Buckeyes a chance to move up or down multiple seed lines.

Big Ten play largely looks as expected. However, the timing of a few games is interesting. Ohio State gets Michigan on the road on a Saturday in February and closes out the regular season at home against Michigan State and Michigan in successive games. Don’t be surprised if those games carry Big Ten title implications.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Jamari Wheeler (Sr.) - 95%
  • SG: Cedric Russell (Sr.) - 80%
  • SF: Justice Sueing (Rs. Jr.) - 90%
  • PF: EJ Liddell (So.) - 95%
  • C: Kyle Young (Sr.) - 95%

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

Ohio State’s lineup looks relatively settled entering the season. And that shouldn’t be surprising. The team returns three starters from last season and added two transfers at the open spots. Barring someone surprising, we should have a pretty good idea about who will be starting for the Buckeyes this season.

In the backcourt, expect Wheeler and Russell to grab the two starting roles. Both players arrive with plenty of experience and some success at their prior schools. Wheeler helped Penn State to one of its best seasons in recent memory and Russell put up decent numbers at Louisiana. The question is whether these guys can elevate their games from solid to great. If so, Ohio State has a chance for a special season.

Expect most of the reserve minutes to go to Meechie Johnson and Justin Ahrens. Each played off the bench last season and should have even more experience this time around. Fans will hope Johnson can build off his freshman campaign. Eugene Brown and Branham are also players who could get some time.

On the wing and upfront, things are basically going to look identical. Sueing, Liddell, and Young return after successful season and will take the bulk of minutes at the three, four, and five spots. The diverse skillsets of these players should also allow them to play multiple positions, minimizing the need for depth options at these spots. When the bench is utilized, expect to see Brunk and Key at the five and Towns at the four. It’s unlikely any other players will get serious time because of the overlap of the starters.

This is a dangerous lineup with plenty of potential. The backcourt is a question mark, but it should at least be functional with the experience on the roster. We’ll have to wait and see if any players can emerge there in the months ahead.

9. Realistic Team Goals

Setting expectations for this season is a tricky endeavor. This team is more than capable of winning the Big Ten and doing some major damage in March. However, it’s also clearly a half to full step behind the top three (Illinois, Michigan, and Purdue) in the league. That could change, but that’s certainly where we are at season’s tip. That makes evaluating things tricky, as the team could hang some banners, but isn’t really expected to do so.

Fair expectations for Ohio State should center around getting back to the Big Dance, earning a nice seed, and winning a few games once there. Fans can reasonably hope, but not expect more.

10. Overall Season Outlook

Last March is a time most Buckeye fans would like to forget. After a solid season, Ohio State fell flat on its face in the NCAA Tournament, losing to Oral Roberts in the team’s opener. It was arguably the biggest upset of the year and one of the bigger ones in recent memory.

Fortunately for fans, the offseason will soon be coming to a close and the Buckeyes will get a chance to move on from last March’s debacle. And the team looks more than capable of doing so, with a solid returning base and some key offseason additions.

Ohio State will have to figure out its backcourt in the months ahead, but this team looks more than capable of achieving some big things this season. Liddell and Young look like one of the league’s better frontcourt duos and the team has ample pieces around them to make some noise.

Big Ten Prediction: 4th Place