Five Things: Chris Holtmann's Buckeyes Primed to Reach Greater Heights Next Season After 2020-21 Ended With a Thud

By Chris Lauderback on April 8, 2021 at 11:05 am
Chris Holtmann
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The 2020-21 college basketball season came to a close Monday night as Baylor routed a previously undefeated Gonzaga squad to claim the national title. 

The Bears dominated from start to finish, leaving no doubt they were the best team on that night, to cap a six-game blitz to glory. 

In a tournament filled with upsets, it was refreshing to see what were the two best teams across the long regular season go at it for the title because in the single-elimination tournament, that is not often the case. 

For Chris Holtmann's Buckeyes, their fate was sealed far earlier than expected but with the season now officially closed, they move toward a critical offseason with high expectations for next year. After taking a peak at Five Things of note in the aftermath of the loss to Oral Roberts, here are Five (more) Things as Holtmann and company turn the page to brighter days ahead. 

OHIO STATE WASN'T ALONE

Not sure if this is something worth taking solace over but now that the dust has settled on the NCAA tournament, it's clear Ohio State wasn't alone in falling victim to a significantly lower seed. 

Ohio State was the highest seed to spit the bit in the first round, as a No. 2 falling to No. 15 Oral Roberts. Collectively though, the No. 2 seeds didn't set the world on fire going a combined 6-4. Houston was the only 2-seed to reach the Elite Eight (also made it to the Final Four) with 2-seed Iowa failing to make the Sweet 16 while 2-seed Alabama did reach the Sweet 16 only to be bounced by 11-seed UCLA. 

Overall, 12 games saw a team at least five seeds lower pull an upset highlighted by No. 3 Texas falling to 14-seed Abilene-Christian, the noted 11-seed UCLA beating No. 2 seed Alabama then No. 1 seed Michigan, and a pair of 13-seeds in Ohio University and North Texas handling 4-seeds Virginia and Purdue, respectively. 

No. 12 Oregon State handled No. 5 Tennessee then beat 4-seed Oklahoma State while No. 11 Syracuse beat No. 3 West Virginia after defeating No. 6 San Diego State in its opening game. Finally, Oral Roberts beat No. 7 Florida, 8-seed Loyola easily handled No. 1 seed Illinois and No. 7 Oregon sent No. 2 Iowa home early. 

So yeah, Ohio State's loss to ORU was the worst of the bunch - seed wise - but upsets highlighted a parity-riddled March. 

WASHINGTON SET TO CAPITALIZE

I know I touched on Duane Washington in my previous Five Things but as a Duane apologist, I'm back for more. 

As of the last Duane discussion, Holtmann had yet to find a point guard in the portal and that was problematic with it being far from certain Meechie Johnson Jr. is ready for starter minutes and I'm not a believer in Jimmy Sotos. No hate whatsoever but I'm unconvinced he's a starting point guard on a championship-caliber team and while I'm pro-Meechie, he's still incredibly young. 

That meant Duane could be in line to spend a chunk of his minutes running the point and that's just not a recipe for elite team success. Now that problem is solved with the arrival of Jamari Wheeler via Penn State allowing Duane to keep focusing on improving his game, something he's done pretty consistently during his time in Columbus. 

DUANE WASHINGTON'S FIRST THREE SEASONS AT OHIO STATE
YEAR MIN/G FGA/G FG% 3FGA/G 3FG% FT% ASST/G TO/G PPG
FRESHMAN 17.1 7.0 37.0 3.8 30.6 64.7 1.1 1.1 7.0
SOPHOMORE 24.9 9.6 40.3 5.0 39.3 83.3 1.4 1.3 11.5
JUNIOR 32.2 13.5 41.0 7.7 37.4 83.5 2.9 2.2 16.4

Despite being asked to shoulder an increasingly heavy scoring load - and hoist up some bad shots in certain situations, both as a result of poor offensive execution or his poor decision-making - his field goal percentage increased each year. He's gotten better from the line, he's a more-willing passer than he gets credit for and his 3-point shot has been solid though not spectacular the last two seasons. 

With E.J. Liddell assumed back and ready to shoulder even more of the scoring load, Justice Sueing expected to be a top-three scorer, and the likes of Justin Ahrens, Malaki Branham, Zed Key, Seth Towns, Jamari Wheeler and Meechie Johnson all in the fold, and maybe even Kyle Young and/or a big man like Efton Reid or another transfer, Washington will have lots of help. 

WHEELS UP

Speaking of Wheeler, adding a veteran point guard to replace CJ Walker and provide a boost to a truly awful Ohio State defense was a huge move for Holtmann. 

Wheeler has 84 starts under his belt, is a two-time All-B1G defensive team guy and has a killer instinct on the floor that will hopefully prove contagious. 

The senior shot just 39.9% from the floor last year but hit on 46.9% of his shots two years ago and his 3.5 assists per game - against 1.8 turnovers - led the Nittany Lions last season.

But again, he's primarily here for defense. Last year, Wheeler averaged 1.8 steals per game. By comparison, no Buckeye averaged even 1.0 steals per game with Walker and Sueing clocking in at 0.9 per contest. 

Wheeler's addition also gives Holtmann some cushion in bringing Meechie along at the right pace though the hope is Johnson still gets his share of minutes to show what he can do after a focused offseason. 

FOUR SCORE

Set to enter his fourth season for the Buckeyes, Justin Ahrens has proven to be pretty much a one-dimensional player but he's also proven he can be highly effective at that one dimension. 

Ahrens shot 42.5% percent from behind the arc last year after connecting at a 40.4% clip as a sophomore and 38.8% as a freshman. You tip your cap to the year-over-year improvement but last year was a bit tantalizing leading to some level of disappointment. 

The Versailles, Ohio product saw volatile minutes over the first nine games before cracking the upper-end of the rotation. During a 13-game stretch running from the end of December through mid-February, Ahrens shot 45.6% from distance, connecting on 36-of-79 tries. 

Just as importantly, Ahrens was actually getting open during the stretch, averaging 6.1 attempts behind the arc per game. He splashed at least three triples in nine of those 13 contests giving Ohio State a scoring punch from outside while opening up driving lanes for teammates as opponents were forced to account for his prowess. 

Unfortunately, the wheels came off over the final nine games of the season as Ahrens made just 5-of-22 tries from three-point land, good for just 22.7%. As teams worked harder to take Ahrens away, he couldn't get good looks on his own or through set plays, leading to not only a poor shooting percentage but also just 2.4 three-point attempts per game. 

Knowing Ohio State's roster is littered with perimeter guys, Ahrens needs to show more consistency, if not versatility, to stake his claim in the rotation and give Ohio State a guy that can constantly stretch the defense. 

INSTANT OFFENSE

Newly minted Ohio Mr. Basketball, Malaki Branham, might have the juice to provide an immediate punch to Ohio State's backcourt. 

Yes, Washington and Wheeler figure to start but there's room for Branham to carve out a role after averaging 21.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.8 steals per game in leading Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary to the Division II state crown. 

At a sturdy 6-foot-4, the top-30 national recruit could provide additional depth at both shooting guard and the point depending on his offseason development. 

A born slasher with an ability to finish in traffic and get to the line, Branham will work on refining his outside jump shot so college defenders can't focus so heavily on taking away his dribble penetration. 

Branham won't be counted on for major contributions in year one but there's no question he's got the game of a guy who can come in and log meaningful minutes right from the jump.

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