Two weeks into its preseason practice schedule, the Ohio State men’s basketball program opened up practice for members of the media to view the final half hour of workouts at the Schottenstein Center on Thursday morning.
The open session included the tail end of an intrasquad scrimmage as well as sprints and free-throw shooting to close out the day. Head coach Chris Holtmann spoke with reporters thereafter, and addressed the absence of senior forwards and newly minted captains Kyle Young and Justin Ahrens, among other topics.
Young was not seen at practice at all, while Ahrens was in basketball gear but not participating.
“Kyle and Justin, just a little bit banged up. Just a little bit banged up right now,” Holtmann said. “I don’t think either one is a long-term injury by any stretch, just a little bit banged up, we’ll give them a couple days to recover. I don’t want to get specific, but I don’t see it as a long-term thing.”
Young has been held out of practice for stretches over the past two years due to lower-leg injuries, but Holtmann said he has not yet decided what the fifth-year Buckeye’s regular regimen will look like this season.
“I think right now we’re just kind of playing that day-to-day, honestly,” Holtmann said. “I think right now I’m not ready to make any final decisions on what his practice is gonna look like on a daily basis.”
Seth Towns was also absent from practice Thursday, but that came as little surprise, as the sixth-year senior forward is expected to be out until December after undergoing back surgery in September.
On @971thefan, Chris Holtmann says Seth Towns was only playing at 60-70% health last year while his knee continued to heal.— Griffin Strom (@GriffinStrom3) October 14, 2021
As for the scrimmage itself, the Buckeyes were divided into scarlet and gray teams. The scarlet team featured a primary lineup of Meechie Johnson Jr. and Jimmy Sotos in the backcourt, Justice Sueing and Eugene Brown filling wing slots and Zed Key down low.
On the gray team, Jamari Wheeler and Cedric Russell matched up with Johnson and Sotos, E.J. Liddell and Malaki Branham played wing roles and Indiana transfer Joey Brunk battled with Key in the paint.
Liddell and company got the edge by a final score of 70-65 in the scrimmage, with a late three-pointer by the returning first-team All-Big Ten forward helping to seal the deal. As expected following the feedback he received from NBA scouts over the summer, Liddell played more on the perimeter on both sides of the ball in Thursday’s scrimmage than he did at any point a season ago.
Holtmann said the biggest adjustment for Liddell will be on defense, where he will now be tasked with guarding wings instead of big men much of the time.
“The biggest thing, I think, has been growing in his defensive versatility, in terms of helping him grow at the next level,” Holtmann said. “Can we help him grow in his defensive versatility, and then can he continue to shoot the ball at a good clip.”
Liddell has slimmed down over the offseason, and other players have made physical changes that were also noticeable on the court Thursday.
Johnson, who Ohio State still lists as a freshman even though he made 17 appearances for the Buckeyes a year ago, appeared to have put on every bit of the 11 pounds he said he added to his frame this offseason.
Brown, a 6-foot-6 sophomore guard, seemed to have put on considerable size as well, and positionally could have been a three or four in the lineup with Johnson, Sotos, Sueing and Key. Brown hit a three-pointer and got to the free-throw line on more than one occasion during the scrimmage, but Holtmann said he will have to earn an increase in offensive responsibilities this year.
“We need a guy right now who’s gonna be a versatile perimeter defender. That’s always kind of been who he’s been at his core,” Holtmann said. “I think offensively, his game is growing and I’m excited to see it continue to grow. But it begins with him in terms of how good he can be defensively.”
In the post, the battle between Key and Brunk was an interesting one to watch and will likely continue to be as the pair compete for minutes at the center position for the Buckeyes this season. Holtmann said Key has gotten into “a little bit better shape” because the Ohio State head coach has been “on his rear end for 11 practices” about it.
A 6-foot-11, Brunk brings size and Big Ten experience that Ohio State did not have at the position last year, and the sixth-year big man showed it with an offensive rebound and a putback score during the scrimmage.
“I do like our depth, and I like – when we’re playing hard – our ability to rebound it with Joey and Zed at the five, and our physicality with E.J. at the four,” Holtmann said. “I think defensively, there’s some concerns there with guys that maybe are not quite the same mobility, we gotta get better in our ball-screen coverages with that, and our post defense in general. But I like the fact that we’ve been able to rebound it, and hopefully the depth can provide a physicality on the interior that I think is gonna be important. Obviously we know what E.J. and Kyle can do, but we’re gonna need important stuff from Zed and Joey.”
Freshman guard Malaki Branham made a couple of standout plays during the scrimmage, including an assist to Liddell on the aforementioned late three. Branham attempted two mid-range jumpers within the first five minutes of media availability at practice, and knocked one in off the glass. Holtmann said he’s “excited about the growth and development” of the in-state prospect moving forward.
Chris Holtmann says landing an in-state prospect like Malaki Branham was really important for the program, and that he's "really excited" about the freshman's growth.— Griffin Strom (@GriffinStrom3) October 14, 2021
After two straight weeks of practice, Ohio State will have some time off this weekend coinciding with the university’s fall break. Next week, the Buckeyes will have a secret scrimmage against an undisclosed opponent, although Holtmann said he wouldn’t be surprised if the identity of that opponent ends up leaking.
Ohio State has an exhibition game scheduled against Indianapolis at the Schottenstein Center on Nov. 1 before the first official game of the season against Akron on Nov. 9.