Ohio State will be limping into Indianapolis when it opens Big Ten Tournament play on Thursday.
Losers of three of their final four regular season games, the banged up Buckeyes must overcome a slew of injury issues if they hope to make much noise at the start of the postseason. Ohio State played seven games in the final 16 days of the regular season, and despite Chris Holtmann’s best efforts to have his team healthy for this year’s home stretch, the Buckeyes appear a bit worn down once again.
“Lot of games in a short amount of time, I feel like the energy level just went down,” Ohio State forward E.J. Liddell said after Ohio State’s 75-69 Senior Day loss to Michigan on Sunday. “Just seeing our legs, not being able to slide our feet, and those are things you gotta work on. Happy we get a little break here soon, but can’t let that happen.”
Ohio State has now been without sixth man and captain Kyle Young for all of the past two games, and most of the past three. Young has been in concussion protocol since taking a blow to the head early against Nebraska last Monday, which is particularly worrisome given the two concussions Young suffered in the final month of the 2020-21 regular season.
The Buckeyes have gone 1-2 since Young left the Nebraska game after the first eight minutes, and Holtmann said his absence was especially tangible on the defense in Sunday’s loss to the Wolverines.
“(Not having) Kyle’s versatility hurts us. When he’s out, it affects our defense in a significant way, because you have another versatile front line guy that you can switch with,” Holtmann said. “Clearly it’s something we have addressed, and we addressed it because it’s kind of been an issue for a year. And we need to continue to address it.”
Before Sunday, Ohio State had been without starting center Zed Key for two games due to an ankle he turned in the second half of the Buckeyes’ Feb. 27 loss to Maryland. Key returned to action against Michigan, but played only seven minutes and wound up limping back to the locker room at one point after tweaking his injured ankle once again.
Freshman guard Meechie Johnson suffered an ankle injury of his own against Michigan, and needed the assistance of two trainers to get back to the locker room. Johnson, who has started five games for Ohio State this season, has also missed five due to different ailments over the court of the year.
Holtmann didn’t have any immediate updates on any of those three players following the Michigan game, but said Young has been making slight improvements in his condition.
“I think Meechie turned his ankle and Zed reinjured his ankle. I don’t know the severity of both, and I’m not yet sure on Kyle’s status,” Holtmann said. “I think he’s getting better by the day, but I couldn’t give you any update other than he’s getting a little better by the day. … We need rest, we need to get healthy, but we need to play better. We need to defend better and defend better as a group, so health is certainly a factor.”
Of course, Ohio State also has yet to see the services of fifth-year forward Justice Sueing since the opening two games of the season, as the California transfer has dealt with an abdominal issue that began plaguing him around this time last year.
Holtmann described this season as the worst for injuries he’s experienced as a head coach, and after the way last season ended for Ohio State, he knows all too well the importance of being fresh in the postseason.
Four days between games will be the Buckeyes’ most in several weeks, and could afford Ohio State the chance to lick their wounds before delving back into the Big Ten gauntlet.
“It’ll help for sure. I think it would help any team when you go on a stretch like we did to close out the season – it’s tough,” Buckeye forward Justin Ahrens said. “But at the end of the day it’s not really an excuse. We just gotta own it and own the fact that we haven’t played well enough to win games on both sides of the ball.”
Now the No. 6 seed in the Big Ten Tournament Ohio State will play the winner of Wednesday’s Minnesota-Penn State, two teams that the Buckeyes are 4-0 against so far this season. But as evidenced by Ohio State’s recent loss to Nebraska, then the last-place team in the conference, it isn’t guaranteed to win any games in the tournament if it doesn’t tighten some things up first.
Improving on defense and limiting turnovers are both key for the Buckeyes, but healing up may go a long way in playing up to their potential over the final few weeks of the year.
“I think we need rest, but we also need to get better in some areas,” Holtmann said. “Rest and health are critical. But there are issues that we gotta continue to improve in. And we’ve taken some strides in some areas. We’ve not turned the ball over like this in a while. We’ve not been this sloppy or careless with the ball.”