The 2023-’24 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2023-’24 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 postseason potential.
Entering last fall, Ohio State found itself in an interesting predicament. Despite general success under Chris Holtmann’s leadership, fans still felt a bit disappointed with the results. The Buckeyes were consistently in the NCAA Tournament and around the top hunk of the Big Ten, but had yet to convert any of that into any hardware of notable success in March. It left many fans feeling like the program was a bag of potato chips, filled mainly with air and little bite.
Unfortunately, things didn’t turn around last season.
In fact, they got worse.
For the first time in Holtmann’s tenure, Ohio State missed the NCAA Tournament and finished with a losing record. The Buckeyes finished the regular season with a deflating 13-18 overall record and 5-15 mark in Big Ten play. And while Ohio State made some noise in the Big Ten Tournament, making it all the way to the semi-finals on Saturday, the team was never a serious contender by the final month of the season. It was a truly disappointing effort that placed plenty of pressure on Holtmann heading into this campaign.
The question is now whether Holtmann can get things back on track. Ohio State will have the pieces to be competitive this season, thanks in large part to a talented group of newcomers, including three top 60 recruits and Minnesota transfer forward Jamison Battle. However, the departures of Brice Sensabaugh and Justice Sueing raise a lot of questions, especially from a roster that was already struggling.
So, can the Buckeyes deliver this season? Let’s take a look.
1. 2022-’23 Season Performance
- Record: 16-19 (5-15)
- KenPom Team Rating: #49
- NET Rating: #49
- Postseason Appearance: None
There’s no way to describe last season other than a failure for the Buckeyes. The team finished with a losing record, a brutal 5-15 mark in conference play, and fell well short of the NCAA Tournament. Even amid a tenure that has been more “good” than “great” with Holtmann, last season stands out as being particularly underwhelming.
Ohio State’s primary issues came on the defensive end of the floor and upfront. The Buckeyes finished outside the top 100 in defensive efficiency and a major reason behind that was the team’s undersized lineup. Ohio State finished 118th in average height and had to play small ball due to injury and fouling issues related to Zed Key. Feliz Okpara also only offered inconsistent performances in limited minutes.
What’s particularly interesting is many of these issues only presented as Ohio State entered Big Ten play. In fact, the Buckeyes entered January with a respectable 10-3 overall record and 2-0 mark in league games. Unfortunately for fans, Ohio State followed that with a 1-14 performance in the next 15 games, completely tanking the team’s postseason hopes. It was an impossibly bad run that included 10 (!!!) losses by 10 points or less. The close losses are a key reason Ohio State finished 361st in KenPom’s luck metric.
The Buckeyes briefly rose from the ashes in March, scoring a few upset wins down the stretch and three-straight in the Big Ten Tournament. Unfortunately, the team’s grave had already been dug and the rebound wasn’t close to enough to overcome the earlier struggles as Ohio State fell well short of making the NCAA Tournament and a good hunk out of serious NIT consideration.
Highlights of the season included non-conference wins over Cincinnati and Texas Tech, the regular season wins over Illinois, Maryland, and Iowa, and the run to the Big Ten Tournament semi-finals. Low points included a dreadful loss to Minnesota in mid-January, the losing streak in late January and most of February, and the loss to Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament to end the season.
Individual statistical leaders were Zed Key, Felix Okpara, Brice Sensabaugh, and Bruce Thornton. Key led the team in rebounds. Okpara led the team in blocks. Sensabaugh led the team in points and win shares. Thornton led the team in minutes, assists, and steals.
2. Offseason Exits
Ohio State got hit pretty hard with departures this offseason. The departures were Eugene Brown, Tanner Holden, Isaac Likekele, Sean McNeil, Brice Sensabaugh, and Justice Sueing. That group included four of the team’s top five in minutes, arguing its two most important offensive pieces, and multiple key reserves as well. In many ways, it sets Ohio State up for a massive upheaval heading into next season.
The most significant departures are Sensabaugh and Sueing. They led the team in total scoring last season and dominated the team’s offensive usage. Sensabaugh took an absurd 34.9 percent of shots while on the floor, which was good for seventh nationally, and Sueing finished with 24 percent in the same category. During conference play, the two accounted for an incredible 40.4 percent of the team’s field goal attempts. And that’s before adjusting for any garbage time or even looking at foul or injury issues. It’s simply a massive amount.
And the losses don’t stop there, either. That’s because Ohio State is also losing another starter in McNeil and a quasi-starter in Likekele. McNeil put up solid numbers as a transfer and finished with an impressive 115.3 offensive rating and shot 36.9 percent from three. Likekele’s numbers were more pedestrian, but he played almost half the team’s minutes and was a key reserve behind Thornton. Brown and Holden also transferred after posting relatively underwhelming numbers, though both saw time in the Big Ten Tournament run.
In today’s world of college basketball, departures are generally overlooked based on the general state of roster turnover. However, it’s important to put these losses into proper context. The core of last year’s team was absolutely gutted over the last several months, particularly offensively. Holtmann and his staff will have their work cut out finding new faces.
3. New Additions
This season, the Buckeyes will be adding four new recruits and three transfers. The recruits are Taison Chatman, Scotty Middleton, Austin Parks, and Devin Royal. 247Sports lists Chatman as a combo guard, Middleton and Royal as small forwards, and Parks as a center. Three of the four are rated as four-star prospects while Parks is rated as a three-star.
The recruit receiving the most attention is Chatman, who finished 33rd in the 2023 recruiting class. However, Middleton and Royal also finished in the top 60 and are expected to contribute early as well. Chatman has a polished game and is a really effective shooter. He will have to work on his game in a complimentary role, but he has more than enough talent to play at this level. Middleton is regarded as a player with plenty of six and physicality and Royal is another player with size to play in the paint.
The transfers are Jamison Battle, Dale Bonner, and Evan Mahaffey. Battle is a forward from Minnesota, Bonner is a guard from Baylor, and Mahaffey is a forward from Penn State. Battle and Bonner look like immediate impacts and Mahaffey looks like a player that can develop into a key contributor. Of course, Big Ten fans will know Battle well from his time at Minnesota, where he posted impressive stats and was one of the league’s best players stuck on an otherwise underwhelming roster. Expect him to start immediately. Bonner also looks like a starter and contributed to Baylor in each of the last two seasons, posting a 114.1 offensive rating last season.
Overall, it’s an impressive group of additions. Ohio State not only adds a class ranked eighth nationally, but brings in two transfers capable of starting immediately and another one that could help fill out the depth chart. That’s about as good as you can expect, especially given the struggles last season.
4. Points of Optimism
There’s plenty for Ohio State fans to like about the Buckeyes heading into this season. The program is set to turn a new page after a frustrating year, it adds a plethora of new talent, and the roster appears to fit together well.
While this is an odd place to start the “optimism” section, it’s worth mentioning here. Last season was an absolute disaster in Columbus. Whatever could go wrong did. The season was littered with close losses, injuries, and blown opportunities. And while that doesn’t mean the team will be successful this year, it’s important to remember how unlucky the Buckeyes were last time around. Ohio State was better than its underwhelming 16-19 overall record and fans saw that in the Big Ten Tournament. That means the squad is probably starting ahead of where its record was, which should mean a lot for this year.
The influx of talent is also substantial. The program adds multiple impact transfers and three top 60 prospects. While new pieces always bring a degree of uncertainty, it’s reasonable to think at least two or three of this group immediately work into the starting lineup or top rotation. If you want to turn things around, this is a great way to start.
The pieces also seem to fit well. Bruce Thornton, Roddy Gayle, and Felix Okpara are all returning starters, Battle should lock down a spot on the wing, and the Buckeyes have a handful of other prospects to fill out the lineup. Add in talented freshmen to fill reserve roles and things start looking really exciting.
5. Points of Concern
While Ohio State seems positioned to improve on last year’s record, those efforts could hit some challenges. The most significant revolve around fostering an offensive identify amid the significant offseason departures and figuring out things in the frontcourt.
At the onset, it’s important to keep in mind what’s leaving Columbus. The Buckeyes return multiple starters, but lose Sensabaugh and Sueing, who weren’t just typical players. Sensabaugh was a tremendous talent that dominated possessions last season. The freshman accounted for an incredible 34.9 percent of shots when on the floor and shot an impressive 40.5 percent from three-point range. Add in Sueing’s own usage (24.0 percent and second on the team) and there’s a massive amount of production leaving.
Sometimes, shaking things up and balancing out possessions can be good for a team. Things get less predictable and guys play better when they’re involved. However, as noted above, Sensabaugh and Sueing accounted for 40.4 percent of the team’s total field goal attempts. That isn’t just part of the team’s offense at that point, it is the offense.
The frontcourt also remains a work in progress. Most project Felix Okpara as the team’s starter upfront and his role expanded during the team’s late Big Ten Tournament run. However, his overall numbers were relatively pedestrian last season and he was never that productive offensively, only scoring double-digits thrice in 35 games of action. Zed Key also needs to improve his consistency if he’s going to remain a factor. It’s hard to see Ohio State improving much of it can’t get better production out of its big men.
6. Top Player
With the team’s offseason departures, this figures to be a wide open category heading into this season. Most eyes will certain on Ohio State’s returning contributors like Bruce Thronton, Gayle, and Okpara. Fans are hoping all three take the next step after decent freshmen campaigns. Key also could bounce back after an inconsistent year.
However, the new contributors seem like the best bet to win out here, particularly with the addition of Battle. He was an incredible player for the Gophers last season and should be in All-Big Ten consideration from the moment he takes the court in Columbus. It seems reasonable to think he might even push for first team if the Buckeyes play well around him. The incoming freshmen, including Chatman are also darkhorses in this category.
7. 2022-’23 Schedule Breakdown
- 10/22 - at Dayton (Exh.)
- 11/6 - Oakland
- 11/10 - Texas A&M
- 11/15 - Merrimack
- 11/19 - Western Michigan
- 11/24 - Alabama (Niceville, FL)
- 11/25 - Oregon/Santa Clara (Niceville, FL)
- 11/29 - Central Michigan
- 12/3 - Minnesota
- 12/6 - Miami (OH)
- 12/9 - at Penn State
- 12/16 - UCLA (Atlanta, GA)
- 12/21 - New Orleans
- 12/30 - West Virginia (Cleveland, OH)
- 1/3 - Rutgers
- 1/6 - at Indiana
- 1/10 - Wisconsin
- 1/15 - at Michigan
- 1/20 - Penn State
- 1/23 - at Nebraska
- 1/27 - at Northwestern
- 1/30 - Illinois
- 2/2 - at Iowa
- 2/6 - Indiana
- 2/10 - Maryland
- 2/13 - at Wisconsin
- 2/18 - Purdue
- 2/22 - at Minnesota
- 2/25 - at Michigan State
- 2/29 - Nebraska
- 3/3 - Michigan
- 3/10 - at Rutgers
The Buckeyes get an interesting slate this season. Nothing unlike they have experienced in recent years, but a schedule that’s going to challenge the squad on a routine basis. There aren’t many off nights and when there are, they’re often greeted by a challenging game a night or two later.
Non-conference play will be defined by matchups against Texas A&M, UCLA, West Virginia, and the Thanksgiving tournament trip. KenPom has the Buckeyes as considerable underdogs to Alabama, but with manageable odds against the other opponents. If the team can even split these outings, it would be a huge boost to its NCAA hopes.
Big Ten play will be a gauntlet, though things broke moderately well for the Buckeyes, avoiding double-plays with Purdue, Michigan State, and Illinois. Considering those are the highest rated league squads heading into the season and Ohio State gets two of them at home, that’s a pretty favorable draw.
Of course, the truth of the matter is much will ride on the coin flip games that cost the Buckeyes so much last season. The following stretch, with KenPom odds alongside each matchup, is a perfect illustration:
- 1/6 - at Indiana (45%)
- 1/10 - Wisconsin (54%)
- 1/15 - at Michigan (43%)
- 1/20 - Penn State (81%)
- 1/23 - at Nebraska (49%)
- 1/27 - at Northwestern (41%)
- 1/30 - Illinois (53%)
- 2/2 - at Iowa (45%)
Think about that. An eight-game stretch where Ohio State has between 41 and 54 percent odds in seven games. That’s the epitome of tossup range. The Buckeyes could win all of them or lose all of them, just as they did last year. This is the stretch where Ohio State needs to show it put last year’s struggles behind it.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
- PG: Bruce Thornton (So.) - 95%
- SG: Roddy Gayle (So.) - 90%
- SF: Evan Mahaffey (So.) - 80%
- PF: Jamison Battle (Rs. Sr.) - 95%
- C: Felix Okpara (So.) - 55%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
With the considerable offseason departures, Ohio State figures to have a new look lineup heading into this season. For fans, that’s probably a welcome event after last year’s struggles. However, even if things look different, the Buckeyes will have plenty of experience and familiar faces carrying things.
In the backcourt, expect Thornton and Gayle to occupy the starting spots. They both played plenty last season and should be positioned for larger roles this time around. The biggest challenge for these two will be maintaining their efficiency with expanded minutes, largely outside the perimeter. Newcomers Bonner and Chatman will likely get most of the backup minutes behind those two.
On the wing, there’s little doubt Battle will start after putting up massive numbers in Minneapolis. The only question is who plays alongside him. Mahaffey seems like the safest bet, but it’s unclear if he can maintain that position all season. He had mixed numbers at Penn State and will face plenty of competition in Columbus. Middleton and Royal will certainly get looks and fans will be hoping they pop over the next month or so.
Upfront, it’s going to be Okpara and Key. Parks may also get minutes, but it seems likely he’s simply eating up reserve minutes in the event of foul trouble. This is easily the position group with the biggest question marks for the Buckeyes entering this season. Ohio State needs to get more consistent here and much of that will depend on Okpara.
Overall, this is a pretty respectable group. Battle projects as a star and the backcourt could be sneakily good, especially if the bench develops during the season. The frontcourt will remain a work in progress, but at least Holtmann has some pieces to work with.
9. Realistic Team Goals
While there are question marks, Ohio State enters this season with a talented (and surprisingly proven) roster. This isn’t your typical rebuild. The Buckeyes have plenty of returners with experience and are adding arguably the best group of newcomers anywhere in the league.
Because of these factors, Buckeye fans should be expecting a return to relevance. Ohio State is every bit good enough to get back to the NCAA Tournament and challenge for a top four seed in the Big Ten Tournament. The biggest challenge will be getting all these new pieces to mesh together.
10. Overall Season Outlook
It’s been a frustrating time for Buckeye fans. While Ohio State has hit most of the benchmarks with Holtmann, the trophy cash has remained empty. The Buckeyes have always been a tad or two behind where they need to be to reach the heights of the sport. And things worsened last year, with Ohio State missing the NCAA Tournament altogether.
Ohio State now hopes to rebound from that mark with a talented group of newcomers. The incoming recruits look exciting and the transfers should be ready to play early. The Buckeyes face the challenge of replacing some key starters, but all the pieces are there to take a considerable step forward.
All told, this projects as an NCAA Tournament team, but probably not a whole lot more. While the depth and roster have improved, Ohio State doesn’t seem to have the same high-end pieces it’s had in recent years. And that likely prevents the team from challenging the Big Ten’s top teams.