Ohio State has been without perhaps its second-best player for all but two games this season.
The 19th-ranked Buckeyes have managed to go 12-4 through their first 16 games and 5-2 so far in conference play, but that success has been in spite of the absence of fifth-year forward and team captain Justice Sueing. One can’t help but wonder how much different Ohio State would look with the services of a healthy Sueing, who started all 31 games and averaged 10.7 points per game a season ago, when he was the Buckeyes’ third-leading scorer.
While there is still no immediate timeline for Sueing’s return, Chris Holtmann said Tuesday that the Hawaii native is still aiming to come back before the end of the year, and that a return to practice may not be all that far off.
“He’s getting closer, he’s getting close to returning to practice, which that’s obviously close to returning to games,” Holtmann said following the Buckeyes’ 83-37 win over IUPUI. “Listen, it’s probably been the most I’ve been disappointed for a kid in maybe 20 years of coaching. Such a good player, I think he has not reached his ceiling as a player. So important for our team, he’s missed a chunk of games. I’m optimistic, but I think he’s taking it one step at a time.”
Sueing finished the 2020-21 season with what appeared to be a lower-body injury, but Holtmann said in November that both Sueing and the Buckeye staff thought he had made a full recovery over the offseason. But the issue flared up again before the team played a closed scrimmage toward the end of October.
“It had gotten better, considerably better, almost to 100 percent, in his words,” Holtmann said on Nov. 15. “And then really right before the Ole Miss scrimmage he started to feel some of the same issues. Managing it really since then.”
Sueing missed Ohio State’s season-opening exhibition against Indianapolis, but then came back to play a combined 31 minutes off the bench in the Buckeyes’ first two games of the year against Akron and Niagara. Just hours before Ohio State’s next matchup with Bowling Green, though, a team release listed Sueing as unavailable.
Holtmann said after the game that Sueing would be out indefinitely with what would later be called an abdominal issue, although the Buckeye coach said he didn’t expect it to be a season-ending affliction.
Sueing, who played for California for two seasons before transferring to Ohio State and sitting out the 2019-20 season, will still be eligible to return for the Buckeyes next season no matter when – or if – he comes back this year.
“He is eligible for the additional COVID year. That’ll be a conversation that he and I will have,” Holtmann said. “I think he’s taking it one step at a time and evaluating how he feels. … We’ll sit back after the season and evaluate if it’s best for him. We’d love to have to him back, but he’s gotta feel like it’s right.”
Sueing is not the only veteran forward Ohio State has been without this season. Sixth-year Harvard transfer Seth Towns, whose college career has long been plagued with injuries, still has yet to make his season debut after undergoing a procedure for a herniated disc in his back during the offseason.
Towns was originally expected to make his return in December, but now entering late January, the Columbus native doesn’t appear all that close to getting back on the court for a live game. Towns also has the option to return for another year of eligibility – which would be his seventh year of college basketball – should he wish to do so.
“I think Justice is probably a little further along than Seth in his recovery,” Holtmann said. “I see his return to play a little bit sooner than Seth’s. But same thing with Seth, they’ll have to decide if it’s best. Seth’s a little bit older than Justice, so they’ll have to decide if it’s best for them to return.”
Given Ohio State’s deep and experienced roster, which features 15 total scholarship players including nine seniors after former walk-on Harrison Hookfin received a scholarship last weekend, the Buckeyes can still play a relatively deep roster against Big Ten opponents. But with the recent loss of freshman guard Meechie Johnson, who is expected to miss a few more games due to a facial injury suffered in practice, the absences are adding up for Ohio State.
For that reason, in conjunction with ongoing COVID-19 issues around the country that have now either canceled or postponed four games for the Buckeyes this season, Holtmann will be happy to have all hands on deck at any point before the end of the year – if possible.
“I think they both want to try to play if they can this year. I don’t think, I know they both do,” Holtmann said. “But if we get closer and it looks like one of them can’t return or doesn’t feel themselves and need to shut it down, then we’ll have that conversation. Given just COVID and all that, if guys want to play I’m certainly gonna be open to that, because we’re already down considerable numbers right now just with Meechie being out. Those are three important guys for us.”