Five things: Taking stock of Ohio State Basketball’s 5-2 start ahead of tonight’s B1G season opener

Ohio State’s 2021-22 basketball season has been quite the rollercoaster off to a solid 5-2 start.

Needing a buzz-beater from Zed Key to Akron in the season opener, the Buckeyes looked pretty lethargic in a 10-point win over Niagara before finally wrecking a lower program in an 89-58 win over Bowling Green. However, the BG outburst didn’t carry over as Chris Holtmann’s squad seemed out of sync and frankly wasn’t very strong in a loss to Xavier.

The way the state of Ohio fell to the Musketeers raised some concern as the Buckeyes headed for Ft. Myers for dates with NCAA Tournament candidates Seton Hall and Florida, but the Buckeyes dealt with the Pirates thanks to a last-second triple from Meechie Johnson before Florida’s Tyree Appleby played Meechie’s music and gave OSU its own last-second loss.

After three games in seven days, Ohio State returned to Columbus and with six days to prepare for No. 1 Duke, Holtmann’s team recorded what could become the biggest win of the season thanks to a furious comeback in Value’s second half. City Arena on Tuesday evening.

In the midst of those first seven games, Holtmann announced that Justice Sueing would be out for an extended period of time, missed Cedric Russell for a spell due to a family death, lost Gene Brown for the final three games to concussion protocol, and of course, he continues to manage Kyle Young’s leg problems.

After an eventful first month of the regular season, the Buckeyes kick off tonight with Big Ten play at University Park against a Penn State team with a 4-3 record and number 86 in the rankings by Ken Pom.

Before Ohio State takes to court in search of a conference win, here are five things to note from the squad’s first seven games.


EJ Liddell’s decision to return for another year of seasoning was, of course, a huge one for Holtmann and the Buckeyes, especially since Duane Washington chose to try his hand in the NBA. Liddell’s return was based not only on helping the Buckeyes, but also on the fact that he would have some opportunities to address NBA feedback.

As such, he’s been more on the perimeter, where he can polish up the ball handling, increase his jumper’s reach and demonstrate the ability to defend players in space.

He’s done all that and more in the first seven games, surpassing nearly every stat from last season. Liddell’s average of 21.3 points per game – nearly five more than last year – and his rebounds are up to 7.3 versus 6.7, even with more time on the wings. His assists are a maximum of 2.7 per game (he only had six against Duke), because he often has the ball in his hands and lies face up.

While I can imagine the average length of his field goals being equal to or longer than last year, he shoots 55.3% from the floor compared to 47.4% a season ago and while it’s a small sample size, he shoots 40% off the arc after hitting 33.8% last year.

Perhaps the most surprising stat is that he blocks 3.7 shots per game, up from 1.1. The help on the side to flush out shots was a real strength in the beginning.

In the past three games, against legitimate foes in Duke, Florida and Seton Hall, Liddell was just as good as against the lesser opponents, averaging 21.7 points, 8.3 boards and 3.7 blocks in 32.7 minutes per game.

With all those bright spots, decision-making and ball handling are still the main areas of focus. You knew sales would increase as his usage increased, but I’m guessing Holtmann realistically wants it closer to 2.0-2.2 instead of his current 2.9 per night.

Overall, Liddell has a hot start and against the best Big Ten teams, Holtmann needs him to play the Evan Turner role and log. at least 32 minutes per game, so staying out of trouble and in shape is a must.


An unexpected bright spot in the win over Duke arrived when graduate transfer Cedric Russell came out of nowhere to play 15 minutes, giving the Buckeyes 12 points and three rebounds in a clutch performance.

Russell looked calm in such a big spot, as evidenced by his 3-for-3 shooting from deep and 3-for-4 from the line, despite barely playing in the first six games.

Of course Russell missed some time with the team after a death in the family, but even that aside, he didn’t look comfortable on the pitch until Tuesday.

In his first four games, he played a total of 23 minutes and hit only 1-on-4 shots with one rebound.

Only time will tell if his massive effort against the Blue Devils can serve as a springboard, but we hope it will. Not only does Holtmann still need a steady hand in the backcourt and a reliable shooter from the outside, greater effectiveness from Russell would give Holtmann time to take Malaki Branham and Meechie Johnson.

Those two have had some moments, so maybe it’s just me, but I’m not impressed with their progress so far. Speaking of..


Let me start by saying that I firmly believe that Malaki Branham will become a star in Columbus and I think Meechie Johnson will definitely be a key factor for the state of Ohio as well. They are just young and inexperienced.

In the beginning, they both encountered some speed bumps. For Branham it is getting used to the length and speed of defenders and improving his handling of the ball. For Meechie, he struggled with his shot and decision making.

Even with the buzzer knocker we all enjoyed, Johnson shoots just 31.9% from the floor and 29.4% from distance and in his last three outings, he’s on a 3-for-15 slide with 10 total points .

Sometimes he starts the attack but has yet to play a game with more assists than turnover and during the season his assist-to-turnover ratio is 11-to-15.

Again, I’m confident Meechie will be a key player for Buckeyes this year, but I’m sure he and Holtmann were both expecting a better start.

A true freshman, Branham was clearly a bit more of an unknown, despite his high school pedigree. He has an average of 6.1 points per game and has started in six out of seven games, but shoots 37.5% from the floor, including a small sample size 3-of-10 from deep.

He flips it around with about the same clip on Meechie, at 1.9 per game, with a hair less minutes.

Interestingly, his body definitely looks Big Ten ready to me, but he doesn’t necessarily play the ball that strongly – whether in his aggression in completing drives with his body/arms or in protecting the ball. dribble before reaching that point. This has led to a number of unbalanced or fading shots after the initial bursts fired past his defender or as the defenses turned around from the auxiliary side.

Adjusting to the defensive intensity is something I think will be easier than if he were physically outmatched, so that area of ‚Äč‚Äčopportunity seems to be the most preferable of the two. It’s going to be very interesting to see how much more comfortable Branham is, say mid-to-late January. I wouldn’t be surprised if by then he averages closer to 10 points per game and shoots at a noticeably higher clip. Again, I’m definitely not targeting Branham, I thought maybe too aggressively that he would make an even bigger impact from the jump.


Zed Key has been a legend in 11W clearance for over a year now and his personality and achievements are now even starting to gain national attention.

You know the numbers, he averages 22.3 minutes and 10.9 points per game – more than double his first season output for both – and he comes in with a massive 20 points, zero turnover in 27 minutes. duke.

His value cannot be underestimated as he has helped make up for the scoring deficit with Washington’s departure.

What is most impressive to me about Key is that he has clearly stated how he can help this team off-season and that is paying off.

First, his conditioning is the basis of all this early success. By no means is he playing 22 effective minutes a night against last year’s 265 pounds. Now he has a range of 247-252, giving him not only more minutes, but usable minutes.

Second, although he showed a usable left hand very close to the bucket last season, you can see he worked like crazy building his off-hand shot from not only multiple spots on the floor, but that range a expand a bit. This gives him an edge in post-ups as defenders aren’t sure which way he’ll turn or even which hand he’ll end up with. That versatility helps him negate what is sometimes the defender’s height advantage.

He had this skill last year, but what also helps him look good in tights is the ability to use his butt to neutralize defenders. Most of us see him use the galley to pull guys back and get to his spots, but what he’s also doing, which I think is harder to notice, is throwing his weight on defenders to knock them off balance while they jump to block his shots .

The way he gets into defenders often can’t get them the same lift or preferred angle to divert his shots. It really is a subtle skill and shows what a student of the game he is.


Beating No. 1 Duke on Tuesday night was certainly a huge win for Holtmann’s program. While his team is already playing with a lot of confidence, it doesn’t hurt to take on the Dookies in an electric environment, especially in come-from-behind fashion. The win will also be a nice resumption bulletin in the seeding of NCAA Tournament.

What’s important now, though, is to back that win with another. The ability to maintain momentum after a big win is a great test for any program, and since today’s game against Penn State is a conference fight, that’s far more important.

I’m interested to see how the team reacts on the road, in a weird day/time slot, against a team that should be beating it on the heels of beating number 1.

Holtmann and his company have said all the right things for tonight and make no mistake, this is a game Ohio State should win. A sign of continued maturity would be to avoid a flat start and get a solid win against a team that should beat it.

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