The 2022-’23 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2022-’23 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.
It’s been a bizarre run for the Buckeyes since Chris Holtmann arrived on campus. Despite five top 45 KenPom finishes and three top 20 rankings, Ohio State hasn’t yet been able to put it all together with him at the helm. Ohio State’s been good, but it hasn’t quite been able to convert that success into hardware in March. It’s left many fans with an empty feeling about the Holtmann tenure, even if it’s generally been a successful one.
Those mixed feelings lead us into this season, where Ohio State will try to convert a talented roster into success in March. Unfortunately, Holtmann and his staff will have that challenge in what might be a transition season, as the program tries to replace a number of key contributors. Holtmann has shown he can do more with less and that figures to be his challenge yet again. The roster has talent and a few proven returners, which should help. The season will hinge on a handful of young players.
The question will be whether Ohio State can overcome the transition and finally break through with Holtmann. It won’t be easy, but the path is there. It will come down to a handful of returners outperforming expectations.
So, can the Buckeyes deliver this season? Let’s take a look.
1. 2021-’22 Season Performance
- Record: 20-12 (12-8)
- KenPom Team Rating: #31
- NET Rating: #23
- Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (R32)
Last season was a decent one in Columbus. By every general measure, Ohio State’s season was a solid one that fans should be happy with. The Buckeyes won 20 games, made the NCAA Tournament, and won a game there. Even for programs as successful as Ohio State’s over the last decades, those marks are nothing to complain about.
Of course, the season also wasn’t particularly memorable. It was a decent campaign that fans can be satisfied with, but nothing more. And that’s disappointing based on how things started. Despite jumping out to a 13-4 start to the season and notching a win over Duke, the team closed the regular season at 6-6 and lost its Big Ten Tournament opener. It took all the air out of the quick start.
One key aspect of Ohio State’s struggles was the injury to Kyle Young late in the season. He was a crucial contributor for last year’s team and missed significant time in the last month, including in losses against Nebraska, Michigan, and Penn State. No player alone defines a team, but Young’s absence was certainly damaging. Fans will be left to wonder how the team would have performed had it been healthy for that final stretch.
Highlights of the season included the non-conference wins over Seton Hall and Duke, the regular season wins over Illinois, Maryland, and Michigan, and the postseason win over Loyola (Chicago). Low points included the missteps against Rutgers, Nebraska, and Michigan during the regular season and the losses to Penn State and Villanova in the postseason.
Individual statistical leaders were EJ Liddell and Jamari Wheeler. Liddell led the team in minutes, points, rebounds, and blocks. Wheeler led the team in assists and steals.
2. Offseason Exits
Ohio State got hit pretty hard with departures this offseason. The Buckeyes lost a total of 10 players in Justin Ahrens, Malaki Branham, Joey Brunk, Harrison Hoofkin, Meechie Johnson, EJ Liddell, Cedric Russell, Jimmy Sotos, Jamari Wheeler, and Kyle Young. Additionally, Ohio State also saw Seth Towns medically retire from basketball.
The most significant departures are Branham and Liddell. They were both All-Big Ten caliber contributors last season and Branham really developed into a star by season’s end. The two also dominated Ohio State’s offensive production, particularly toward the end of the year. For example, the two accounted for 40 of the team’s 61 points in its final game against Villanova. The offense effectively walks out the door with these two.
Other notable losses include Wheeler, Brunk, and Young. All three were starter caliber contributors and Young was easily the league’s most underrated contributor during his career. He was the epitome of a glue guy that often carried the Buckeyes in big spots. Similarly, Wheeler locked things down for the team in the backcourt and Brunk emerged as the team’s starting big man at year’s end. Several of the other players like Ahrens, Johnson, and Russell also contributed off the bench.
While turnover is expected in today’s world of college basketball, this is clearly something beyond what a team is ordinarily going to expect. The Buckeyes are looking at replacing four starters and two of the team’s top bench contributors as well. It’s a huge hunk of production walking out the door and won’t be easy to replace.
3. New Additions
This season, the Buckeyes will be adding five new recruits and three transfers. The recruits are Roddy Gayle, Bowen Hardman, Felix Okpara, Brice Sensabaugh, and Bruce Thornton. 247Sports lists Thornton as a point guard, Gayle and Hardman as shooting guards, Sensabaugh as a small forward, and Okpara as a center. Everyone but Hardman is listed as a four-star prospect, who is identified as a three-star. Colby Baumann and Owen Spencer also join the program as walk-ons.
The recruits receiving the most attention are Gayle and Thornton. Both are rated as top 50 prospects and should have a chance to play significantly next season. Gayle is listed at 6-foot-4 and has really shown the ability to drive the ball in the lane over traffic. Thornton should play at the point and figures to be a physical player at the next level. Both are also a bit better defensively than some might expect, which could make their transition easier. Sensabaugh has also gotten a fair amount of preseason hype and it seems like he might be able to overperform on his recruiting rankings early on.
The transfers are Tanner Holden, Isaac Likekele, and Sean McNeil. Holden is a small forward from Wright State, Likekele is a point guard from Oklahoma State, and McNeil is a shooting guard from West Virginia. The most exciting of the three is probably McNeil, who was a dynamic scorer for the Mountaineers last season and shot 36.8 percent from three-point range. Holden was also a productive player last season and had an impressive 113.0 offensive rating with one of the higher usage rates in the Horizon League. Likekele was alright with the Cowboys, performing as a decent passer, but being relatively inefficient as a scorer.
Overall, this is a pretty deep group of additions. Ohio State adds arguably the best recruiting class in the league (ranked eighth nationally by 247Sports) and three transfers who are good enough to play immediately. It’s hard to complain much about adding that much in a single offseason.
4. Points of Optimism
There’s little debate there are some significant reasons to be excited about the Buckeyes heading into this season. Ohio State brings back some key contributors from a productive team, adds a plethora of new pieces, and has a proven coaching staff who know how to make more with less. It’s not a perfect recipe for success, but it’s certainly more than enough to feel optimistic about the coming season.
The place to begin is Ohio State’s returners. While the Buckeyes got hit hard with offseason departures, there are some notable players coming back. For example, Eugene Brown and Justice Sueing return on the wing and Zed Key returns upfront. All three players have been productive contributors in the past. Sueing and Key have both been starter level contributors and Brown is a player who could improve on last year’s reserve contributions. Those three should give Holtmann a base to work with this season.
Ohio State’s newcomers are also deep and talented. As mentioned above, the Buckeyes add a top 10 recruiting class highlighted by two top 50 prospects. The team also adds three transfers who are capable of moving into the starting lineup this season. In short, that’s three potential starters and a top 10 recruiting class. That should give Holtmann more than enough to fill out the lineup.
And that’s the part that really makes a lot of this exciting. Holtmann has shown the ability to overcome roster problems and thin spots in the lineup since arriving to Columbus. Ohio State has been solid in each of Holtmann’s five seasons at the helm and should be yet again this season. It’s because he knows what buttons to push and who to emphasize. And that has to give fans some confidence heading into this season.
5. Points of Concern
Unfortunately, there are some challenges Ohio State will have to overcome as well. Namely, the substantial departing contributors and the uncertainty in the backcourt are major concerns for the Buckeyes and their hopes this season. Ohio State also faces the challenge of completely overhauling its offense because of these departures. It’s not going to be an easy task for Holtmann and his staff.
Of course, any discussion here has to start with the program’s departures. And we’re not just talking about a player or two, either. In total minutes, Ohio State is losing its top five, six of its top seven, and nine of its top 11 contributors from last season. Even if you’re adding new pieces, that’s almost Ohio State’s entire production. Teams don’t just replace those kind of lost contributions in a single offseason.
Ohio State’s replacements are also a mixed bag. Holden and McNeil look like instant starters, but Likekele probably projects as something closer to a bench player on a good team. And while the incoming freshmen look exciting, relying too extensively on true freshmen is always a risk proposition. They’re inconsistent and often go through dry spells, particularly during the doldrums of conference play.
It’s also important to emphasize what Ohio State is attempting to do this season as well. The Buckeyes are losing a lot of contributors, but also the heart of the team’s offensive production. Holtmann and his staff are going to need to redesign things from the ground up, which also comes with transition costs. Expect some hiccups as Ohio State figures out the little things this season, such as playing in transition, closing possessions, and how to play in the lane. It will be a growing process.
6. Top Player
Ohio State enters this season without a clear leader in this category. Liddell was clearly the team’s biggest contributor last season and he’s gone. Branham and Wheeler also took steps as well, but they’re also out the door. It leaves a significant void here that will need to be addressed.
The returners who deserve the most consideration here are Key and Sueing. Both have been productive contributors and should be again this season. The newcomers should also get some mention. McNeil could be in for a big season and the recruiting class is loaded. Fans will hope one of the freshmen can blow up because that’s the best shot at having a top tier contributor this season.
7. 2022-’23 Schedule Breakdown
- 11/1 - Chaminade (Ex.)
- 11/7 - Robert Morris
- 11/10 - Charleston Southern
- 11/16 - Eastern Illinois
- 11/21 - San Diego State (Lahaina, HI)
- 11/22 - Arizona/Cincinnati (Lahaina, HI)
- 11/23 - TBA (Lahaina, HI)
- 11/30 - Duke
- 12/3 - St. Francis
- 12/8 - Rutgers
- 12/17 - North Carolina (New York, NY)
- 12/21 - Maine
- 12/29 - Alabama A&M
- 1/1 - at Northwestern
- 1/5 - Purdue
- 1/8 - at Maryland
- 1/12 - Minnesota
- 1/15 - at Rutgers
- 1/18 - at Nebraska
- 1/21 - Iowa
- 1/24 - at Illinois
- 1/28 - at Indiana
- 2/2 - Wisconsin
- 2/5 - at Michigan
- 2/9 - Northwestern
- 2/12 - Michigan State
- 2/16 - at Iowa
- 2/19 - at Purdue
- 2/23 - Penn State
- 2/26 - Illinois
- 3/1 - Maryland
- 3/4 - at Michigan State
This is going to be a really challenging slate for the Buckeyes. The team not only gets a handful of really challenging non-conference games, but drew a challenging conference slate as well. The schedule is also sneakily tough early on, meaning things could snowball if Ohio State doesn’t start well.
Non-conference play is highlighted by the trip to Maui in November and the games against Duke and North Carolina later on. Given the other teams in Maui, Ohio State is likely looking at five marquee games between that group and that might even understate the difficulty of those games. KenPom will likely have Ohio State as an underdog in at least three or four of the games.
The Buckeyes also got a particularly tough draw in conference play as well. Ohio State got double-plays against Illinois, Michigan State, and Purdue and road games against Indiana and Michigan as well. Ohio State is going to need to play well on the road if it’s going to cash in on this slate.
The opening portion of the slate also looks particularly interesting, with KenPom odds noted alongside:
- 1/1 - at Northwestern (54%)
- 1/5 - Purdue (58%)
- 1/8 - at Maryland (48%)
- 1/12 - Minnesota (85%)
- 1/15 - at Rutgers (45%)
- 1/18 - at Nebraska (68%)
- 1/21 - Iowa (58%)
That’s seven games with five ranging between 45 and 58 percent odds and another on the road. It’s the definition of a swing stretch. Outperform expectations and the team could position itself well for an NCAA bid. However, fall flat and the entire season could go off the rails. The stretch could easily decide Ohio State’s season.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
- PG: Isaac Likekele (Sr.) - 75%
- SG: Sean McNeil (Rs. Sr.) - 85%
- SF: Eugene Brown (Jr.) - 70%
- PF: Justice Sueing (Rs. Sr.) - 95%
- C: Zed Key (Jr.) - 95%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
Given the substantial offseason departures, Ohio State has some questions in its starting lineup heading into this season. Things should sort themselves out, but the Buckeyes are going to have to figure out its backcourt rotation and its wing group as well. It should be interesting to follow.
In the backcourt, Ohio State returns essentially nothing. The Buckeyes are going to rely extensively on newcomers. Transfers Likekele and McNeil seem likely to start after arriving with decent pedigrees. The question will be whether they get pushed by the freshmen, which will be one of the biggest questions moving forward. Bruce Thornton will get a look at point and expect to see Bowen Hardman and Colby Baumann get a chance as well. This group is likely going to see a lot of rotation during the year.
While the wing group seems more settled with Eugene Brown and Justice Sueing returning, there’s a lot of uncertainty behind them as well. Brice Sensabaugh should contribute off the bench, but it’s hard to see who else might play and where. There’s just a lot of uncertainty. Hardman and Baumann might also get some look at the three.
Upfront, Key is an easy pick to start at the five. He’s the most natural fit and did well last season. He will primarily be backed up by Felix Okpara and Kalen Etzler. Both are relatively unproven options. The good news is Holtmann will get to try out both off the bench and see who plays best.
Overall, there’s a lot of uncertainty here, but that happens when you lose four starters from last year’s group. However, Ohio State has more than enough talent to fill out of the lineup and put together a decent bench group. If some of those depth options develop, this lineup could also get really interesting.
9. Realistic Team Goals
Setting expectations for this year’s Buckeye group is a challenging task. On the one hand, Ohio State was a good but not great team last season that lost four of its starters, including its best player from that group. It’s not exactly something that suggests an elite group. However, on the other, Ohio State has also show impressive consistency under Holtmann and brings back one of the league’s most talented rosters.
So, is the glass half full or half empty?
Honestly, it’s hard to say, which is probably a reason to push on the expectations here. Ohio State should probably end up somewhere around where it was last season, i.e., a good but not great team.
10. Overall Season Outlook
In many ways, Ohio State has been the Big Ten’s best kept secret over the last few years. Regardless of expectations and talent, Ohio State simply keeps delivering. The Buckeyes have made four straight NCAA Tournaments and would have made five, had the 2020 postseason been played. It’s a mark few programs nationally can match.
Holtmann’s task this season to keep that momentum going and he has the pieces to do it. Sueing and Key should provide a stable frontcourt and the Buckeyes add one of the best groups of newcomers in the league. If even one or two of this year’s freshmen can play, the lineup could be great.
Unfortunately, the overhaul and transition are probably going to be too much to seriously contend for the Big Ten title this season. Expect a similar performance to last season, though that should set the group up for a banner campaign in 2023-’24.