With last week's addition of shooting guard Cedric Russell by way of transfer from Louisiana, it appears Chris Holtmann's 2021-22 roster appears officially set.
Gone are Duane Washington Jr., CJ Walker, Musa Jallow and Ibrahima Diallo. Washington was obviously the team's leading scorer, Walker the leading assist guy and primary ball hander, Jallow a defensive-minded reserve and Diallo, a bench player with honestly no meaningful playing time in sight.
New faces include Russell, Malaki Branham, Jamari Wheeler, Joey Brunk and Kalen Etzler. Russell projects as a ready-now backcourt scorer with a fairly comparable game to that of Washington. Branham is the near-five-star true freshman set to make an immediate impact, Wheeler is a defensive stopper and lead ball-handler from Penn State, Brunk is a big man with an injury history but also a history with Holtmann, and Etzler is a true freshman that'll likely have to wait his turn to see double-digit minutes.
The new additions join a host of returnees, headlined by E.J. Liddell, who tested the NBA waters before deciding to come back to Columbus for one more year. He'll be more than a power forward/center this year, as he looks to grow where needed to make an NBA roster in the future.
Holtmann also welcomes back notables Meechie Johnson and Jimmy Sotos in the backcourt, wings Justice Sueing, Justin Ahrens, Seth Towns and Eugene Brown, and post guys in Kyle Young and Zed Key.
Now, of course, 14 dudes are not going to be part of any regular rotation. That's just not realistic particularly when the competition ratchets up. No disrespect to anyone but as noted, it feels like Etzler needs time to develop and Sotos' skill-set probably isn't quite as useful with a surging Meechie and a proven Wheeler locking down minutes at the point while Russell and Branham figure to see a ton of minutes at the 2-guard slot.
But even if those two end up mostly on the outside looking in, along with maybe Brown to some degree, the roster still boasts a ton of depth and versatility.
Let's take a closer look at the guys, broken down by backcourt, wings and post.
At the point, it seems Meechie is really coming on this summer and is the likely favorite to start. While not shocking, it's wild Johnson didn't even arrive in Columbus until December 2020, following a reclassification that basically gave him a free half-season to learn the ropes in Holtmann's program.
The Garfield Heights product saw action in 17 games but averaged only 5.9 minutes per. He shot 39% from the floor in the limited sample size including a 50% mark from distance.
He never looked afraid or completely overmatched but I'll raise my hand as someone who figured Wheeler as a no-doubt starter at the point based on his experience and defensive pedigree - something Holtmann's squad didn't have much of last season.
The starting point guard is likely far from cemented but it's a great sign that Meechie appears so solidly in the mix.
Behind Johnson and Wheeler, Sotos seems like a distant third option. The Bucknell transfer started a couple games last year and certainly isn't a stiff but the two guys in front of him figure to earn the bulk of the 40 minutes per night.
At shooting guard, Holtmann and Tony Skinn didn't convince Russell to come to Ohio State to play a minor role. Russell gives the team a guy capable of creating his own shot that's more than willing to do exactly that. His overall offensive efficiency hasn't been stellar but he can get a bucket and shot 40% from beyond the arc a season ago, where 52% of his total shots were hoisted.
Joining Russell in the 2-guard mix is Branham, Ohio's Mr. Basketball out of Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary. The true freshman led his squad to a state title last season on the strength of 21.3 points, 5.1 boards and 2.7 dimes per contest. At 6-4, he's a slasher with a solid midrange game. He'll look to polish his outside jumper, among other facets, but should be a factor from day one.
The combo of Russell and Branham seems destined to gobble up the most 2-guard minutes but certainly based on matchups and game situations, the noted point guards could see a bit of action at the 2 and of course some of the wings we'll get to in second could also log periodic time there.
Nirvana state, in my opinion, is Russell provides a nice, dependable cushion in which Branham has some breathing room to adapt but eventually comes on like a freight train, eating somewhat into the ratio of minutes between the two as the season wears on. But hey, it's July and what the hell do I know.
I know Liddell isn't a wing but I'm starting with some quick thoughts on him. After logging virtually all of his minutes at the 4 and 5 spots last year, I do think Liddell will not only play more of his 4-man minutes on offense facing up instead of posting up, I could see a scenario where Holtmann also tries to get him some minutes at the true 3 spot, paired with legit posts in combos of Key/Young, Young/Brunk etc. How that pans out will of course impact the distribution of minutes for the true 3 men on the roster.
What can I say, I just think Holtmann will do what he can to get Liddell looks on the wing. This is not an identical situation but is at least similar to when Thad Matta shifted Jared Sullinger from center to power forward for a year of development and offensive seasoning with an eye on Sully's NBA future.
Of course, the primary 3 on this roster is Sueing after averaging 10.7 points on 49% shooting including 36% from distance to go with 5.5 rips per game after his transfer from Cal. Sueing's ability to finish in traffic and/or get to the line helped Ohio State's offense a season ago. He typically let the game come to him, so much so that I'd argue he was too deferential at times. Still, he logged the third-most minutes last season and his defensive rating was the third-best on the squad.
If Liddell does spend more time on the wing, one guy who could suffer the minutes consequences is Ahrens. The definition of a one-dimensional player, Ahrens shot a streaky but impressive 43% from distance, showcasing his true value in extending defenses and carrying the offense in a few short bursts. That said, he frankly didn't do much else, attempting seven 2-point field goals in 567 minutes played and ranking dead last among the 12 rotational guys in assists per 40 minutes (0.8). His defensive limitations, notably on rotations and closeouts, were only magnified by similar struggles of teammates like Washington.
Towns is another veteran with a ton of experience and if he's healthier than last season, it'll be interesting to see how Holtmann deploys the reputed sharpshooter that struggled to get on track from distance in fits-and-starts minutes last year (34.1%,10.8 mpg) as he admirably worked himself back into health and game shape after basically two and a half years off due to injuries. A similar role this year feels like it could be just about the ceiling for the former Ivy League Player of the Year but he's definitely a bit of an enigma thanks to multiple major knee surgeries.
Finally, Gene Brown enters his second year as one of most well-liked and athletic guys on the team but like Towns, it feels like an uphill climb to realize more minutes than a season ago.
The optimal situation here sees Sueing become an even greater factor, Liddell makes the most of any minutes he sees on the wing, becoming a matchup nightmare, and Ahrens builds on his deep shooting percentage while not being asked to do a ton of other things. And of course it would be great for Towns to stay healthy and be give ~15 minutes per game when needed.
Yes, this is absolutely Liddell's primary spot and we already know what he can do. He'll presumably log the bulk of his minutes at the 4-spot, even if he faces up more while technically filling the post than last season.
Liddell shot just 51.8% on 2-pointers last season, good for eighth on the team, while his 33.8% clip from distance slotted seventh. That said, his 9.0 rebounds per 40 minutes paced the squad and the dude was all heart at both ends of the floor.
A huge bonus for Holtmann is getting Young back for another year. The glue guy, Young does all the dirty work, loves to play defense and shot an awesome 43% from deep last year and 54% overall. His offensive rating of 137 points per 100 possessions led the team and he shot 85% from the stripe. Basically, he did a little bit of everything and did it all pretty damn well.
Zed Key turned some heads as a true freshman averaging 5.2 points on the strength of 61.2% shooting with 3.4 boards per game. Key brought finger guns and energy to the floor along with a big ass capable of carving some space in the lane. He should be even better this season, giving Holtmann a valuable reserve to play behind, or alongside in certain situations, Young and/or Liddell.
Finally, Brunk joined the Buckeyes as a transfer following three years at Butler and two at Indiana. I frankly have no clue what to expect from the sixth year player with his own significant injury history but I do know that at 6-foot-11, 255 pounds, he gives Holtmann an experienced post presence full of intangibles that can at least log his own 15-20 minutes a night as required. That of course gives Holtmann another puzzle piece as he decides how to best deploy Liddell and Young on a game-by-game basis.
Overall, the roster looks deep and versatile. Some things need to go right on the health and development front, no doubt, but if things break in Ohio State's favor, this looks like the kind of roster Holtmann should be expected to take to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time since his arrival in the summer of 2017.