Five Things: Taking Stock of Ohio State Basketball's 5-2 Start Ahead of Tonight's B1G Season Opener

By Chris Lauderback on December 5, 2021 at 9:35 am
E.J. Liddell

Ohio State's 2021-22 basketball season has been quite a roller coaster on the way to a solid 5-2 start. 

The Buckeyes needed a buzzer-beater from Zed Key to down Akron in the season-opener and looked quite listless in a 10-point win over Niagara before finally trashing a lower-tier program in an 89-58 win over Bowling Green. The BG blowout had zero carryover however as Chris Holtmann's squad looked out of sync and frankly not very tough in a loss at Xavier. 

The way Ohio State fell to the Musketeers created some level of concern as the Buckeyes headed to Ft. Myers for dates with NCAA Tournament contenders Seton Hall and Florida but the Buckeyes handled the Pirates thanks to a last-second triple from Meechie Johnson before Florida's Tyree Appleby played Meechie's music, dishing OSU its own last-second loss. 

After three games in seven days, Ohio State headed back to Columbus and with six days to prepare for No. 1 Duke, Holtmann's squad racked up what could turn out to be its biggest win of the season thanks to a furious second-half comeback in Value City Arena on Tuesday night.  

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

After an eventful first month of the regular season, the Buckeyes start Big Ten play tonight in University Park against a Penn State team boasting a 4-3 record and slotted No. 86 in Ken Pom's rankings. 

Before Ohio State takes the court looking to notch a conference win, here are Five Things standing out through the squad's first seven games. 


E.J. Liddell's decision to return for one more year of seasoning was obviously huge for Holtmann and the Buckeyes especially as Duane Washington opted to try his hand in the NBA. Liddell's return was predicated on not just helping the Buckeyes but also in ensuring he'd have some opportunities to address NBA feedback. 

As such, he's been on the perimeter more, where he can polish ball-handling, increase range on his jumper and show an ability to defend players in space. 

He's done all of that and more through the first seven games, outpacing nearly every metric from last season. Liddell's averaging 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 up to 2.7 per game (he had six alone versus Duke) as he finds himself with the ball in hands and in a face up position more often. 

Though I would imagine the average length of his field goal attempts is equal to or longer than last year, he's shooting 55.3% from the floor compared to 47.4% a season ago and though it's a small sample size, he's shooting 40% from beyond the arc after hitting 33.8% last year.

Maybe the most surprising metric comes as he's blocking 3.7 shots per game, up from 1.1. Coming help-side to wash away shots has been a real strength in the early going. 

Over the last three games, against legit foes in Duke, Florida and Seton Hall, Liddell's been just as good as versus 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 key focus areas. You knew turnovers would be up as his usage increased but I'm guessing Holtmann wants him realistically closer to 2.0-2.2 instead of his current 2.9 per night. 

Overall, Liddell is off to a hot start and against the best Big Ten teams, Holtmann will need him to play the Evan Turner role and log at least 32 minutes per contest so staying out of foul trouble and in condition are must-dos. 


An unexpected bright spot in the win over Duke arrived as grad 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-of-4 from the line, despite barely playing across the first six games. 

Of course, Russell missed some time with the team after a death in the family but even with that aside, he did not look comfortable on the court up until Tuesday. 

Across his first four games, he played a combined 23 minutes, hitting just 1-of-4 shots with one rebound. 

Only time will tell if his huge effort versus the Blue Devils can act as a springboard but here's to hoping it does. Not only does Holtmann need another steady hand in the backcourt and a reliable outside shooter, increased effectiveness from Russell would buy Holtmann time in bringing along Malaki Branham and Meechie Johnson.  

Those two have had some moments, so maybe it's just me, but I've not been wowed with their progress to this point. Speaking of.. 


Let me start this by saying I firmly believe Malaki Branham is going to be a star in Columbus and I think Meechie Johnson will absolutely be a key factor for Ohio State too. They are simply young and inexperienced.

In the very early going, both have run into some speed-bumps. For Branham, it's getting used to the length and quickness of defenders and improving his ball-handling. For Meechie, he's struggled with his shot and decision-making. 

Even with the buzzer-beater we all relished, Johnson is shooting just 31.9% from the floor and 29.4% from distance and over his last three outings, he's on a 3-for-15 slide with 10 total points. 

Sometimes initiating the offense, he's yet to have a game with more assists than turnovers and on the season his assist-to-turnover ratio total stands at 11-to-15. 

Again, I'm a believer Meechie will be an important player for this year's Buckeyes but I'm sure he and Holtmann both were expecting a better start. 

A true freshman, Branham was obviously a bit more of an unknown despite his high school pedigree. He's averaging 6.1 points per game and has started six of seven games but is shooting 37.5% from the floor including a small sample size 3-of-10 from deep. 

He's turning it over at about the same clip at Meechie, at 1.9 per game, with a hair less minutes. 

Interestingly, his body looks absolutely Big Ten ready to me but he's not necessarily playing as strong with the ball - whether it is in his aggression in finishing drives with his body/arms or in protecting the dribble before he gets to that point. This has led to some off-balance or fading shots after initial bursts past his defender or as help-side defense rotates over. 

Adjusting to the defensive intensity is something I think will come easier than if he was physically overmatched so that area of opportunity seems like the more preferred of the two. It's going to be really interesting to see how much more comfortable Branham is come, say, mid-to-late January. I wouldn't be shocked if he's averaging closer to 10 points a game and shooting at a noticeably higher clip by then. Again, I'm by no means down on Branham, I just perhaps over-aggressively, figured he'd be making an even greater impact right from the jump. 


 Zed Key's been a legend in 11W slack for well over a year and obviously his personality and performance are now even starting to gain national attention. 

You know the numbers, he's averaging 22.3 minutes and 10.9 points per game - more than double his freshman season output for both - and he's coming off a huge 20-point, zero turnover performance in 27 minutes against Duke. 

His value can't be understated as he's helped pick up the scoring slack with Washington's departure. 

What's most impressive to me about Key is that he clearly identified ways he could help this team in the offseason and it's paying off big time. 

First, his conditioning is the foundation of all this early success. No way he's playing 22 effective minutes a night at last year's ~265 pounds. Now, he's down to 247-252 range, allowing for not just more minutes but useful minutes. 

Second, even as he showed a serviceable left hand really close to the bucket last season, you can see he worked like crazy to further build his off-hand shot from not only multiple spots on the floor but also extended that range a bit. This is giving him an edge in post-ups as defenders can't be sure which way he'll spin or even which hand he'll use to finish. That versatility helps him negate what is sometimes the defender's height advantage. 

He had this skill last year but what also helps him get off good looks in tight is an ability to use his ass to neutralize defenders. Most of us see him using the caboose to back down guys and get to his spots but what he also does, which is harder to notice in my opinion, is throw his weight into defenders to get them off balance as they jump to block his shots. 

The way he gets into defenders, they often can't get the same lift or preferred angle to redirect his shots. It's really 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 already plays with a lot of confidence, it can't hurt to beat the Dookies in an electric environment, particularly in come-from-behind fashion. The win will also be a nice resume bullet come NCAA Tournament seeding. 

What's important now though is backing up that win with another. Showing an ability to keep momentum following a big win is a great test for any program and with today's game versus Penn State being a conference battle, it's that much more important. 

I'm interested to see how the team responds on the road, in a weird day/time slot, against a team it should beat on the heels of defeating No. 1. 

Holtmann and company have said all the right things heading into tonight and make no mistake, this is a game Ohio State should win. A sign of continued maturity would be avoiding a flat start and earning a solid victory against a team it should beat. 

View 18 Comments