With one announcement on Friday, Ohio State’s outlook on the 2022-23 season became a whole lot bleaker. Then, one day later, the Buckeyes got good news.
While Malaki Branham could still rejoin the program after entering his name in the NBA draft, his status as a widely projected first-round selection makes it all the more likely the freshman guard will end his collegiate career after just one season in Columbus, leaving a large void in the roster as far as star power goes. But Wright State transfer guard Tanner Holden’s commitment to the Buckeyes on Saturday should not be overlooked as an important domino to fall as Chris Holtmann rebuilds his roster this offseason.
Make no mistake, those two things do not necessarily offset. Branham could be a lottery pick at 19 years old, winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year and earning third-team all-conference honors in his first year of college basketball. Holden has been a star in the Horizon League for the last two seasons, averaging 20.1 points per game as a junior, but no one is mistaking the competition he has faced on a nightly basis for the challenges he’ll go up against in the Big Ten.
Still, Holden’s ability to score the ball – not to mention his career 53 percent shooting mark from the floor – could go a long way in mitigating the loss of Branham in the Buckeye backcourt, even though the Wheelersburg, Ohio, native is far from a proven commodity at the high-major level.
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, Branham’s announcement came just a week after E.J. Liddell’s own draft declaration, which now means Ohio State will lose the two players that carried the scarlet and gray through much of this past season. But while Liddell’s departure was determined even before the season, Branham’s only became possible over the past couple months, as the first-year wing had a major breakthrough to start the new year and stabilized down the stretch to become a 20-point-per-game scorer in the final 10 games.
The addition of Holden won’t solve all, and the Buckeye coaching staff will still need to do more work in the transfer portal to help replace what it stands to lose in Liddell and Branham. As first steps go, though, Holtmann and company have done well to lock down an in-state transfer prospect who certainly looks the part.
At 6-foot-6 and 185 pounds, Holden’s size on the wing should allow him to sidestep the pitfalls that prevented one recent mid-major shooting guard transfer from having the type of impact many expected he would upon arriving in Columbus for this past season.
Cedric Russell was a prolific scorer in the Sun Belt, scoring 17.2 points per game in his final season with Louisiana, and with the departure of Duane Washington to the NBA, Russell figured to bring instant offense to the Buckeye backcourt. Russell did that at times, and was crucial to several big wins for Ohio State, but ultimately contributed an average of just 4.2 points in 12.9 minutes per game for the Buckeyes in his final season of college basketball.
At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, Russell didn’t possess the kind of height or length that will aid Holden’s transition to a similar step up in competition. Beyond his 20-point scoring average, Holden also pulled down 7.1 rebounds with 1.4 steals per game last season, stats that show he may be able to stay on the floor defensively even when he isn’t scoring the ball. Holden was also second in the country in free-throw makes and attempts this past year, and in his one matchup with a Big Ten opponent, he scored 17 points on 5-of-10 shooting in a lopsided loss to Purdue.
As far as whether or not he will enter the program as an instant starter, there are still too many moving parts with the Buckeyes roster to tell.
Branham will presumably be gone, but the jury is still out on Justice Sueing – who has played everything from the one to the four spot for the Buckeyes – after missing all but the first two games of the season due to an abdominal injury. Justin Ahrens is another 6-foot-6 wing that may or may not be back for the Buckeyes after an underwhelming senior season, as the Ohio State captain will have to decide if he wants to use his additional year of college eligibility in Columbus.
Meechie Johnson and Eugene Brown both started games for the Buckeyes in the 2021-22 season and will each be looking for increased roles as they enter their third years in scarlet and gray.
Ohio State’s incoming freshman class, ranked No. 5 in the country, includes multiple wings as well. While the likeliest member of the five-man class to start right away is the nation’s No. 8 point guard, Bruce Thornton, the Buckeyes will also bring in a pair of four-star wings in Roddy Gayle (No. 59 overall) and Brice Sensabaugh (No. 61).
Holden would presumably stave off either of those two for immediate playing time at the start of next season, but as seen with Branham’s meteoric rise this past year, the possibility of a breakout freshman campaign cannot be discounted.
For those expecting Holden to routinely replicate nights like his 37-point effort against Bryant in Wright State’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win once he gets to Ohio State, expectations ought to be tempered considerably. But with Liddell gone, Branham with a foot out the door and Sueing’s return no guarantee, one can’t help but wonder who the first option on offense will be for the Buckeyes next season.
The loss of Branham, an unforeseen before the season, certainly handicaps Ohio State’s chances at immediately improving upon the up-and-down campaign it turned in this past season. But Holden’s presence will help nonetheless, particularly if paired with another high-caliber transfer or two, depending on how the rest of Ohio State’s roster shakes out in the coming weeks.