Zed Key aside, the Ohio State starting lineup struggled mightily against one of the worst opponents it’ll see all season.
Eastern Illinois entered with one of the worst offenses in the country and one of the bottom 10 teams overall in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin. The first part of that equation was on full display with the 43 points the Panthers mustered during a 22-point loss, their fourth of the season. But the fact that Ohio State finished with just 65 points and only led by six points at halftime proved that either Eastern Illinois was tougher than expected or the Buckeyes simply had an off night.
That was certainly true for four of Ohio State’s starters, who combined to score just 15 points on 6-for-23 shooting and committed 12 of the Buckeyes’ 17 turnovers on the night. It’s no wonder Chris Holtmann subbed out all but one of his starters less than five minutes into the game.
“I thought just in general, we did not have the kind of start we needed to with that group, with that starting group,” Holtmann said after the game. “Just not the pace or the effort we needed with that starting group, which is why we subbed early.”
Ohio State’s starting big man should avoid criticism for his performance, as Key finished with 10 points and 14 boards in 25 minutes. Key might have missed four of his five free-throw attempts, but he hit 4-of-6 shots from the floor to help him record his third straight double-double in as many games to start the year.
For the rest of the Buckeye starters, there wasn’t much to celebrate.
Justice Sueing’s night was particularly poor. After looking like the best player on the floor in Ohio State’s season opener, scoring 20 points to lead all Buckeyes after nearly a yearlong layoff, the sixth-year vet hardly resembled a first-teamer Wednesday.
Sueing scored just six points on 2-for-10 shooting against Eastern Illinois. It was his third-worst shooting percentage in a game in which he took at least 10 shots at the college level. Sueing didn’t score at all in the first half, hitting none of his five shot attempts, and he turned the ball over five times by the end of the night.
“He's a much better shooter than then how he's shot it up to this point, he just is. But he missed some open ones,” Holtmann said. “I do think teams are going to play him like this, they're going to short close on him. So it was good. Teams did that his (first) year in the Big Ten, and what he ended up doing is shooting it at almost 34, 35%. And teams stopped short closing on him. So he's just gonna have to continue to take good ones, and I'm confident he'll knock them down.”
In fact, every starter other than Key was held scoreless in the first half. That group went 0-for-8 from the floor as the Panthers kept things far more competitive than most expected in a game that Ohio State came in favored by 30.
“I think the starting lineup will always be pretty fluid. And could there be a change in the future? It's possible.”– Chris Holtmann
After taking a 21-5 lead with 9:15 to play in the first half, Ohio State didn’t score a basket for well over five minutes, leaving the door open for Eastern Illinois to storm back and cut the lead to three points 2:06 before halftime.
Ohio State played far better collectively in the second half, shooting 50% from the floor to outscore EIU by 16 in the final period, but that didn’t help the starters’ numbers much.
Sean McNeil didn’t score at all in 29 minutes of play and finished with just two boards and one assist. Isaac Likekele was the Buckeyes’ second-leading rebounder with 10 on the night but scored just four points on 2-for-5 shooting. Bruce Thornton had another quiet night on offense, scoring five points on 2-for-6 from the floor, although he did have seven boards and three assists. But both Likekele and Thornton had three turnovers apiece.
“I thought they really battled, I thought they scouted us well, made it difficult for us in spots, give our guys credit. Coming out in the second half, thought we played with just more pace offensively, which was good to see,” Holtmann said. “So you had some good defensive possessions, but obviously, a lot to clean up, a lot to get better on, a lot to improve on as we move forward.”
Meanwhile, the Buckeye bench scored 40 points on the night to account for the majority of Ohio State’s offensive production. Half of those came from freshman Brice Sensabaugh, who scored half of the Buckeyes’ first-half points before finishing with his first-ever 20-point night as a college basketball player.
But outside of his own stellar night, Sensabaugh said Ohio State’s overall offensive struggles aren’t all that much of a concern.
“I think we played well, I just think we got open-shot opportunities that we just didn't execute. We didn't hit shots like how we were supposed to, but that's something obviously you don't take too serious,” Sensabaugh said. “Obviously we're gonna hit shots later on down the line as the season goes on. But I think we were good offensively, could have crashed the boards harder. There’s obviously things we could have done better. But just not hitting open shots isn't something that you take too seriously.”
Holtmann said Sensabaugh’s minutes may increase as things move forward and that the starting lineup could see changes at some point. Thus far, though, the same five have started each of the first three games, and that was only an issue in one of them.
“I think the starting lineup will always be pretty fluid. And could there be a change in the future? It's possible, but we subbed pretty quickly today just because I felt like our effort with that group needed to improve,” Holtmann said.
The Buckeye head coach said Tuesday he has to remind himself to be patient during a season in which his team features so many new faces, and the first half of Wednesday’s game definitely tested it. But Holtmann’s not expecting his group to be perfect this early on, and it still finished with a decisive win to start the year 3-0.
“I'll evaluate the film. We're a work in progress,” Holtmann said. “That's what I would characterize (us as).”