Ohio State’s New Players, Coaches Feeling Optimistic About Future Amid Opening Month of Summer Workouts

By Griffin Strom on July 16, 2022 at 8:35 am
Jack Owens, Felix Okpara
Ohio State Dept. of Athletics

It’s hard to overstate just how much assembly will be required for the Ohio State roster before the start of the new college basketball season.

With five true freshmen and three transfer portal additions giving the Buckeyes eight new faces, not to mention a pair of first-year walk-ons, Ohio State’s on-court personnel is going to look a whole lot different than it did a year ago. Even Chris Holtmann’s coaching staff has seen turnover, with Jack Owens entering the fold and Mike Netti promoted to assistant coach after the offseason exits of Ryan Pedon and Tony Skinn.

The Ohio State program isn’t lacking self-awareness when it comes to how much change it has undergone in short order. The Buckeye creative team even put together a two-plus minute skit poking fun at that fact Thursday, citing record turnout for its fictional “Newcomer Orientation Day.”

The video may have been a joke, but there’s plenty of truth to the notion that the Buckeyes have to get acquainted with one another quickly if they hope to develop a requisite level of chemistry before the season begins.

A number of Ohio State newcomers, both players and coaches alike, have expressed their thoughts on the first six weeks of summer training to Eleven Warriors this offseason. While opinions have varied from Buckeye to Buckeye, an undeniable sense of optimism has been a common throughline among nearly every account.

“They’re a great group to be around. Not just from a talent standpoint; they’re good guys. They’re guys who show up every day and they want to get better,” Owens said at his introductory press conference on June 15. “And that’s what I’ve seen in this short period of time, you have guys showing up who are hungry to get better and want to compete at a high level. And that’s what we need.” 

It’s unclear what roles many Buckeyes will be asked to play in 2022-23, given questions surrounding the age, experience and health status of a number of potential key contributors. But Owens thinks Ohio State’s mix of talent is impressive nonetheless, and he likes what he’s seen from the group so far.

The former Miami (Ohio) head coach must adjust in much the same way his pupils have to, but all parties are doing so together this summer.

“It’s a transition with the portal and everything else, but I think we have a good balance of guys in regards to young guys, older guys and adding some experienced players as well,” Owens said. “But at the same time, I am transitioning with these guys. So learning on the fly as we go along has been pretty good. But I think we have a good balance of guys in regards to guys returning, young guys we’ve added and experienced guys who have played in big-time college basketball.”

Freshman point guard Bruce Thornton, the second-rated recruit in Ohio State’s highly touted 2022 class (ranked seventh in the nation), said the transition hasn’t always been easy since he arrived in Columbus from Alpharetta, Georgia, in June.

“It was rough my first week getting my feet wet,” Thornton said July 3 after making his Kingdom League debut at Ohio Dominican University. “But everybody comes together being very cohesive, connecting together. The bond is just great, I love my team no matter what. The season didn’t even start but I already love them. I feel like we’ve got big things ahead of us.

“The toughest part is just everyday consistency, making sure you go hard every single day. That’s a big main thing. But when you get your feet wet, you understand it’s a business. So when you take it as a business, you have great success.”

Thornton knows the rigorous schedule will only help him and the rest of the Buckeye freshmen improve over the offseason.

“It was just the conditioning, the weights, just the every day making sure you’re on the schedule making sure you’re tight on everything you do,” Thornton said. “That’s a big thing that Ohio State preaches. It really helped me get my feet wet. This is my fourth week here, just understanding what you have to do every single day and bring your best every day.”

Freshman center Felix Okpara, one of four top-75 recruits in the Buckeyes’ 2022 haul, said the group’s synergy could still use some work. But that’s only understandable for a unit piecing together so many new parts. 

“It’s not really great, but we’re working on it,” Okpara said at the Kingdom League. “So it’s way better when we have all the new guys, and you know we’re gonna be there for a long time, so if we can get the chemistry to go good this year, we’re gonna be good in years to come.”

Brice Sensabaugh, a 6-foot-6 wing who won the Mr. Florida Basketball award this past year, had nothing but positive things to say about his experience in Columbus so far. The 62nd-ranked player in the country said despite the “super serious” tone in the practice gym and weight room, the offseason work has been “a lot of fun” and “nothing short of what I expected.”

Of course, the Buckeye roster isn’t comprised solely of first-time college basketball players. Transfer guards Tanner Holden (Wright State), Sean McNeil (West Virginia) and Isaac Likekele (Oklahoma State) have been welcome additions to the roster, and Owens said the younger players can also lean on returning vets like Zed Key, Justice Sueing and Eugene Brown.

“Just seeing the returners come back with a positive mindset and the work ethic to get better. (It helps) when you have older guys and guys who have been in college basketball and obviously guys like Sean and guys who have played in NCAA Tournament games and been a part of a lot of winning,” Owens said. “Isaac, an older guy, Tanner who transferred in; you have older guys who are coming in who have experienced the NCAA Tournament or at least played in high-level games. Those are great. But seeing those guys obviously competing, but then the younger guys develop as well over just this last week has been really good.”

For Key in particular, adjusting to a leadership role has been difficult given his status as one of the team’s younger players just a few months ago. But the third-year big man said the whole group has a chip on its shoulder coming into the new season.

“The vibe is great. Everyone’s coming in working, working hard, so I’m really excited what this team has in store to show everyone,” Key said. “People are counting us out already, so I’m excited to show people.”

In just a few weeks, the Buckeyes’ camaraderie they’ve been working to build will be put to the test against international competition, as Ohio State will play the Puerto Rican and Egyptian national teams during its trip to the Bahamas from Aug. 4-9.

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