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Ohio State hoops: How Buckeyes can go from bubble team to contender

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Ohio State is making a final push to make the NCAA Tournament. (Joe Maiorana/USA TODAY Sports)

Ohio State Basketball

Ohio State hoops: How Buckeyes can go from bubble team to contender

As Chris Holtmann hits the home stretch on his second season in Columbus, a fair amount of criticism and skepticism has begun to take root as this year’s Ohio State basketball team has come back to earth after a hot start to the season. The alarm was sounded with a loss to Rutgers and remained on as the Buckeyes continue to either lose winnable games at home or suffer blowout losses to ranked teams on the road.

While the frustration is real and justified, are we at a point where fans need to recalibrate expectations going forward? If not, when and how will the Buckeyes return to being a legitimate contender that the program grew accustomed to under Thad Matta? A time when the Buckeyes were a No. 1 or 2 seed in half of the twelve years the Buckeyes were tournament eligible.

Ohio State Expectations and Ingredients

Holtmann absolutely crushed expectations last year. While this season’s expectations of finishing in the middle of the Big Ten pack are about right, early-season success lifted this year’s expectations to a level which frankly wasn’t realistic. When looking at this year thus far, one must consider the following:

  • Ohio State lost 65.3 percent of its scoring from last season (not counting walk-on scoring in garbage time).
  • Only 30.6 percent of the scoring on this year’s team comes from players who are not in their first or second year with the team.
  • Holtmann inherited a roster with major talent gaps at point guard and limited depth in the front court, which he’s had to scramble to fill since.
  • Since his arrival, Holtmann has had to deal with two transfers, one dismissal and one early entry into the NBA.

This is a long way of saying Holtmann inherited a mess and has been living paycheck to paycheck talent wise, scrambling to field a competitive roster. At times, he has made it look easy, but the reality is that he’s had to take whatever ingredients he could find and throw them into a mixing bowl hoping they’d go well together. The departures of Kam Williams, Jae’Sean Tate, and chiefly Keita Bates-Diop has exposed the unavoidable reality that he inherited a roster that wasn’t set up for sustained success.

Next year, the Buckeyes should be turning the page here. Holtmann has one of the country’s best recruiting classes coming to Columbus, and next season’s squad will be one of the most experienced in the conference.

Changes that need to happen for Buckeyes

The obvious first domino to tip is that the four (perhaps five) new roster additions need to adjust to the college game and hit the ground running.

The Buckeyes have experienced significant issues at the point guard position, whether it be the revolving door of talent or just the lack of a true point guard playing the position. Next year, the Buckeyes finally plug that hole with not only one true point guard in the highly recruited DJ Carton, but additionally Florida State transfer CJ Walker. The likely upgrade here is massive as Ohio State has often struggled to navigate any press or zone defense — and have been turnover prone in the half-court offense.

E.J. Liddell and Alonzo Gaffney are also welcomed additions who don’t seem to duplicate any existing ingredients and will give Holtmann significantly more options in mixing talent to create mismatches. With these highly ranked additions, the Buckeyes will go from having four players 6-6 or taller to having six — giving the team stability and options in the front court.

But beyond the new additions, Lettermen Row is looking at areas of individual improvement that could help fuel a significant step up for the Ohio State basketball program.

Scouting the Buckeyes

Duane Washington Jr.

Washington has had an up and down year but seems to be coming on at the right time. He is a creative and confident offensive player who you would imagine would become a much more utilized asset with the departures of Keyshawn Woods and C.J. Jackson.

Washington’s defense has been very inconsistent. He’s been a bit of an opportunistic defender often taking risks and guessing what his opponent will do, and often he gets caught leaning the wrong way or just not getting set — giving up a clear angle to the bucket. If Washington wants to see his minutes increase, he’s going to have to be more reliable in his defensive play and intensity.

Luther Muhammad

Muhammad has been a defensive rockstar and has shown flashes of offensive prowess. But frankly, his offensive game has been a major pain point of late with a propensity for unforced turnovers coupled with ice-cold shooting. Muhammed has logged three or more turnovers in half of the ten losses, a rather alarming stat given his limited ball handling. He’s also shooting a dreadful 32 percent since the calendar turned to 2019, and across his last four games, Muhammad hasn’t scored more than 3 points a game despite racking up some of the most minutes on the roster.

Muhammad is a confident player who, again, has shown flashes. But he suffers from being predetermined with the ball. He also favors going to his right and defenders seem to know because once he takes a strong dribble to that side, he often finds himself trapped in traffic or with no shooting or passing options. If Muhammad wants to maintain his minutes, he’s going to have to significantly improve his offensive decision making and become more comfortable going to his left.

Musa Jallow

Jallow finds himself in a weird position halfway through his Ohio State career, where his path forward in terms of more minutes is not that clear. Despite being one of the more athletic players on the roster, Jallow has struggled mightily to be a contributor on offense, tallying over 10 points in three conference games but being held scoreless in eight of them.  Holtmann does seem to favor him for his rebounding and defense, but with new talent inbound, you have to wonder if Jallow can carve out a larger role going forward.

On the plus side, Jallow doesn’t shoot much and doesn’t turn the ball over, so his lack of offensive production is subtle. But in spite of his offensive shortcomings, having a player who just isn’t a scoring threat is allowing defenses to cheat away from him, which adds more strain to the other players on the court. Jallow is going to have to find some areas where he can reliably contribute offensively or he will likely begin to see his minutes reduced. Unfortunately, though, I’m not sure there is much low hanging fruit here.

Musa Jallow on a fast break vs. Maryland. (Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY SPORTS)

Justin Ahrens

Early on it looked like we might not see enough of Ahrens to assess his play heading into next season. However, we’ve begun to see more of Ahrens of late, and the good news is that he does look like the shooter the Buckeyes desperately need. Additionally, he’s shown some offensive craftiness in terms of passing and getting to the bucket.

The bad news is that Ahrens struggles mightily defensively, particularly in transition. Ahrens has been a bit of a liability on the defensive end as expected when compared to his peers in Andre Wesson, Muhammad and Jallow. But it’s been a manageable dropoff mostly. Where it rears its head the most is in transition, when Ahrens often struggles to identify which player he should pick up.

Ahrens has had a few possessions where he’s been accidentally double teaming a player and has had to be physically nudged towards the player he should be defending. Often the result is a wide-open bucket, and while these moments have been tough to stomach, it’s probably one of the easier things to correct and something that could work itself out with more playing time.

Andre Wesson

It’s been a bit lost in the shuffle, but the elder Wesson brother has dramatically improved his play this season as his scoring output has tripled and shooting has been much improved. Wesson’s defense has also been consistently good as well, making him one of the most complete players on the roster.

What Holtmann would like to see is Andre Wesson avoid foul trouble that he’s frequently found himself in this season. He has had four or more fouls in eleven games thus far, including six of the ten losses. It’s possible with more development and fresh blood Andre Wesson’s production could be replaced, but the reality is his steady presence cannot — and thus he’ll be needed as a steadying force.

Kyle Young

Similar to Andre Wesson, Ohio State has to be very pleased with Young’s development from being a sparsely used reserve to a reliable asset on both ends of the court. Young is shooting over 70 percent on the season and has been dependable defensively and on the boards.

It’s hard to pinpoint major areas of necessary improvement for Young, but ideally he would continue to develop his body in order to be able to fight for better position in the paint more often. He plays tough, but he’s frequently giving up 30 to 50 pounds to whomever he’s guarding — which often makes him a target defensively.

Another small beef would be some spotty shooting in his infrequent trips to the free-throw line. Young isn’t going to light it up offensively, but more production there would go a long way.

Kyle Young-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State basketball

Ohio State got some important minutes from Kyle Young in the win over Northwestern. (Joseph Maiorana/USA TODAY Sports)

Jaedon LeDee

Jaedon LeDee looked like a significant asset early on by scoring 12 and then 16 points in the Buckeyes first two home games. Despite those early flashes, LeDee has mostly been called upon since due to blowouts, injuries and foul problems. In limited play, there seems to be a lot to like with LeDee with his high motor, confidence, good free-throw shooting and adding a presence defensively and on the boards. With Alonzo Gaffney coming to Columbus, LeDee is really going to have to distinguish himself further to carve out a larger role next season.

It’s possible LeDee could benefit from a redshirt season so he gets two years of separation from Kaleb Wesson and Kyle Young. But putting that unlikely scenario aside, LeDee is someone Ohio State would like to see add some more weight. Similar to Young, he’s often found himself in bad defensive positions after being backed down in the paint giving up height and weight to his opponent. If LeDee can become a reliable option as a true center, he’ll benefit with more minutes as Young, Andre Wesson, Gaffney and others seem to have the inside track for more minutes at the four position. LeDee seems to have the ability but will need to grow into the body that allows him to get more playing time.

Kaleb Wesson

The younger Wesson has had a pretty dramatic uptick in his sophomore season, and it’s safe to imagine we’ll see that trend continue throughout his time in Columbus. This isn’t exactly a shocker, but foul problems have been his — and the team’s — biggest issue. The Buckeyes are just not a good team right now with him on the bench.

Through 27 games, Wesson has has four or five fouls in 13 games, and having the program’s best player navigating foul problems in half the games is just not sustainable. Further weight loss could make a difference, as would more usage of LeDee or zone defense (or just more consistent refereeing). The reality is Wesson has moments of carelessness, and even if they are few and far between, it’s enough to sway the outcome of a game.

There is no silver bullet here for Wesson when it comes to fouling, but perhaps he can just be more selective with his physicality and defensive intensity when he’s in foul trouble so more minutes can be squeezed out of him next year. Given the frequency that he gets to the free-throw line and the quality of his 3-point looks, a small improvement with his shooting would also go a very long way as well.

Expectations for Ohio State next season

I fully expect the Buckeyes to return to the top-25 rankings next season, and barring something unforeseen, I’d expect them to stay for years to come. There are a lot of unknowns at this point, but one thing seems like a good bet at this point in time: The future is bright for Chris Holtmann in Columbus.

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