Ohio State faced little resistance in Monday's 82-46 win over Indianapolis.
However, the exhibition afforded viewers a first look at the 2021-22 Buckeyes, who put on a showcase performance in the blowout victory.
And there was plenty to take away from Ohio State's preseason trial run ahead of next week's official season opener against Akron.
Second-year players stepped up
With a year of experience under their belt – or a part of one, in Meechie Johnson Jr.'s case – several second-year Buckeyes showed a heightened sense of comfortability and aggression on offense Monday.
Eugene Brown led all scorers with 15 points off the bench and did it efficiently on 6-of-7 shooting. Brown had success inside and out, knocking down three 3-pointers and going 3-for-3 inside the line as well. As a freshman last season, Brown never scored more than nine points in a game for Ohio State. With seven boards, Brown grabbed more than all but two other Buckeyes.
“Gene really struggled in the first scrimmage (against Ole Miss), and I just didn’t feel like he played as aggressively as he needed to play. I thought tonight – and I’m not thinking offensively, just in general – he had much better energy and aggressiveness,” Holtmann said. “Granted, the competition was different, but I thought he did some good things.”
Johnson, who started the game alongside Penn State transfer Jamari Wheeler in the backcourt, took five of Ohio State’s first nine shots in the exhibition. Johnson got to the line six times, finished with 12 points and was tied for the team lead with nine shot attempts in the game. Johnson never took more than three shots in a game as a true freshman for the Buckeyes last season.
Zed Key started at center for Ohio State and punished Indianapolis in the paint for 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting from the floor. Key even attempted a three, although he missed it, and tied E.J. Liddell for the most rebounds among Buckeyes with nine.
“They’re gonna be critical for what we can eventually be as a team right now. We’re not there yet with those guys,” Holtmann said. “They’re gonna be really critical for us.”
Sueing dealing with injury
One of the most pertinent developments from Monday was actually evident well before the game even started.
Justice Sueing, an Ohio State captain and sure-fire starter at forward, was dressed in street clothes during pre-game warmups, joining injured Buckeyes Kyle Young and Seth Towns. The fifth-year senior did not play in the exhibition, and Holtmann did not provide a timeline for Sueing’s return after the game.
No Kyle Young or Seth Towns for Ohio State tonight (as expected), and Justice Sueing is out as well.— Griffin Strom (@GriffinStrom3) November 1, 2021
Sueing said last week that the injury he finished last year with took longer than expected to heal. pic.twitter.com/94VvepeXBd
“It’s kind of a lower-leg injury,” Holtmann said. “He’s had some really good practices and some good moments, but it’s bothered him a little bit, it’s lingered a little bit. So tonight, really in his case, we asked him how he felt. He just did not feel like he could go at this point. So I think for us, it made sense to sit him and try to get him rehabbed.”
Holtmann said Sueing’s injury is the same one that hampered him during the Buckeyes’ 2020-21 postseason run.
“Everybody knows about Kyle being out,” Holtmann said. “What they don’t know is Justice was struggling with this a little bit in the NCAA tournament as well. As much as possible, we need to get healthy. That’s gonna be critical for us. I’m hoping it’s not gonna be one of these things where it’s gonna be touch-and-go throughout the year, where we can have some consistency to him and to his play. But we’ll see how he continues to progress.”
If Sueing and Young aren’t healthy enough to play by this time next week, Ohio State could be down two projected starters when the season starts officially.
Branham showed “glimpses”
Heralded true freshman guard Malaki Branham had a head-turning performance in his unofficial Ohio State debut, showing off a seasoned offensive repertoire despite his youth.
The 6-foot-5 Columbus native scored 10 points on 3-of-9 shooting, knocking down two of his five attempts from deep and hitting both of his free throws during 20 minutes of action. If not for Key’s +29 plus/minus, Branham would have led the team in that category, at +25.
Checking in for the first (unofficial) time... pic.twitter.com/c4shd1fnnq— Ohio State Hoops (@OhioStateHoops) November 1, 2021
“I want him to stay aggressive, I want him to stay attacking, I want him to compete on defense, I want him to play really hard. But first thing is aggressiveness, really on both ends,” Holtmann said. “And yeah, we saw that. You see it, he’s a young kid, he’s the youngest kid on our team. He’s got a bright future. He’s just a young kid right now, but you see glimpses of some really good things.”
Branham scored five straight points for Ohio State in one stretch midway through the first half, hitting a smooth mid-range jumper off the dribble on one possession and coming back down with a three-point make on the next one. Branham added two assists to his final statline, and did not disappoint in his first performance in front of fans at the Schottenstein Center.
Branham was the second Buckeye off the bench after Joey Brunk, and appears poised to make an impact early in his collegiate career.
Minimal impact from Brunk, Russell
Ohio State brought in three graduate transfers this offseason, but Wheeler was the only one to start or earn positive feedback from Holtmann after the game.
Wheeler’s three shot attempts were not enough for Holtmann’s liking, but other than that, the Buckeye head coach said Ohio State’s new starting point guard “was really good.” Wheeler finished with five points, three rebounds, two assists and no turnovers.
Indiana transfer Joey Brunk, however, had no points, two rebounds, three turnovers and five fouls in nine minutes of action for the Buckeyes. Brunk was the first player off the bench for Ohio State on Monday, but failed to make much of an impact.
“Joey looks like a guy who’s been off an entire year,” Holtmann said. “He’s just got to get more physical, he’s got to shake some of the rust off.”
Louisiana transfer guard Cedric Russell didn’t play at all in the first half, and then went 1-for-7 from the floor in 17 minutes in the second half. Russell finished with three points on the night, and missed four of his five three-point attempts.
“Cedric has to continue to get used to the length and everything at this level,” Holtmann said. “So he’s a work in progress, as we mentioned.”
Holtmann had previously said during the preseason that Russell will likely play his best basketball around the midpoint of the year after he’s had more time to adjust.
Trigger-happy from 3
Ohio State’s first five shot attempts, and six of its first nine, were all from beyond the arc. The Buckeyes missed on 11 of the 15 threes they took in the first half, and even though Holtmann expects his team to put them up this season, he thought his players might have gotten a little carried away early on.
“We’ve always shot a lot of threes here, particularly more these last couple years,” Holtmann said. “We’ve always been a team that’s – I believe in that. Certainly I believe in the analytics behind it. The importance of being able to have multiple three-point shooters on the floor, as many as four, if you can’t have five at times. I just think there’s great value in that. We did, however, take some rushed, quick ones that I didn’t love. I didn’t particularly like the ratio of threes. I thought we were three-happy a little too early. Too much too early."
Justin Ahrens, in particular, shot 1-for-5 from three-point range in the opening half, and finished 2-for-7. Ohio State shot 10 percent better from three in the second half than it did in the first, but an overindulgence was evident.
With this three point field goal, Justin Ahrens becomes the first Buckeye to ever score a 3PFG in an exhibition game vs the University of Indianapolis with 19:08 remaining in the second half on a Monday evening.#Team123 #GoBucks pic.twitter.com/AnUiyEZBaW— Ohio State Hoops (@OhioStateHoops) November 2, 2021
Still, Holtmann doesn’t expect his team to limit itself from long distance moving forward.
“We’re gonna shoot a lot of threes,” Holtmann said. “That’s what we’ve done, and are gonna continue to do.”