Ohio State will be swimming with sharks during next week’s Maui Invitational, which features five ranked competitors on an eight-team tournament bracket. If Justice Sueing had his way, the program would approach that concept in a more literal sense.
The Buckeyes have a built-in tour guide on their roster in Sueing, an Oahu native, upon touching down in Hawaii Friday night. But Sueing’s initial sightseeing recommendations may have been a bit too ambitious for his unassuming Ohio State teammates.
“I tried to see if they wanted to do some type of diving, some shark diving. But I don’t think my teammates were down for that one,” Sueing said with a laugh during an exclusive interview with Eleven Warriors. “So I think we’re gonna stay on the land.”
While all but two members of the team (Sueing and Zed Key) are set to make their first trip to the Aloha State, perhaps no one will be as excited as Sueing, who lived in Hawaii until his sophomore year of high school and still goes back to visit family two to three times a year. Sueing’s hometown of Honolulu is about a 45-minute flight from the host site of the tournament, located a couple islands over from Maui, but he said it “embodies the same type of culture and vibe.”
For Sueing, a return trip home will allow some members of his family to see him play basketball for Ohio State live for the first time. It’s also a chance for the sixth-year forward to share his culture with coaches and teammates. After an off night in his most recent outing, just his third game back from a yearlong injury absence, a Hawaiian backdrop may be the best possible locale for Sueing to get comfortable and shake off some rust.
“The culture there, I can’t wait to experience it with my teammates and kind of show them how I was raised growing up."– Justice Sueing on Hawaii
There’s little doubt the young Buckeye roster will lean on Sueing even more now that the level of competition is ramping up significantly over the course of five days.
“I think it’s just exciting just because not a lot of people get to play in this invitational. So it’s a blessing just with that alone, and then also the fact that I’m from there, I’m from that state,” Sueing said. “The culture there, I can’t wait to experience it with my teammates and kind of show them how I was raised growing up with how the people are there, the foods and just kind of the nature of it. That’s a big part of why I’m excited for it, and then on top of that, just getting to play the game I love in front of my family and friends. I’m just really excited.”
Ohio State will play three matchups against a field that includes No. 9 Arkansas, No. 10 Creighton, No. 14 Arizona, No. 17 San Diego State – which the Buckeyes will play on Monday – and No. 23 Texas Tech, as well as unranked Lousiville and Cincinnati.
That list of potential opponents is a stark contrast from the Buckeyes’ first three opponents this season. Mid-major programs Robert Morris, Charleston Southern and Eastern Illinois hold a combined record of 3-7 to start the season, and Ohio State defeated all of them by at least 22 points.
As pleasant as Hawaii will be, the Buckeyes may find its on-court opposition a little less so come the start of the week.
“From now on, our schedule is pretty intense. We have this tournament, we have Duke, we have a couple good non-conference games before we go to New York. From here on out, we’re in the deep end,” Sueing said. “I’m just really excited to get out there with the guys and get challenged right from the start really. And get through those hurdles and see how far we’ve grown and as well as get to learn what we need to continue to grow on to have a successful season. But yeah, I’m excited to play against these good teams here in this invitational.”
Before Monday, Ohio State will have the weekend to take in the sights and sounds on Maui, and the Buckeyes have an experienced escort to help show them around. Shark diving might not have worked out, but Sueing still has other activities in mind, particularly those that are culinarily oriented.
“We’ll have a little bit of time to enjoy the island, hang out with each other, get a little closer, spend that time off the court. I’ll be playing a little bit of tour guide, with the food especially,” Sueing said. “I’m not too familiar with Maui, I’ve been there a couple of times, but I’m more familiar with back home in Oahu.
“There’s this food I feel like everyone on the team will like. Or at least, I feel like if they tried it, they wouldn’t mind it. It’s called a katsu musubi. It’s like fried chicken almost and then there’s rice on the bottom of it, wrapped in seaweed. I feel like everyone on the team would actually enjoy it, even though it might look a little intimidating because they might not have seen it a lot just growing up where they’re from. There’s that, and I think the food over there, you can’t really go wrong. There’s so many options, dessert. Ube is something I’m dying to have when I land there.”
Some Buckeyes may be intimidated by the local food, but no one will be groaning about the weather. Least of all Sueing, who said it’s what he misses most about living in Hawaii, especially after a week of freezing cold temperatures and snow in Ohio.
“I was just talking to Ice (Likekele) about this, I was talking about how the weather there is just so different compared to anywhere else. That’s probably the one thing I miss the most about it,” Sueing said. “Especially right now when it hit this week, it’s getting real cold here in Columbus. So I’m like, man I just can’t wait to get some sunshine, lay on that beach for a little bit. It’s gonna be great, I’m definitely looking forward to that.”
Beyond soaking up the sun, Sueing will also get to spend some time with his family, who he doesn’t typically visit more than a few times a year. Sueing said his entire family still lives in Hawaii, and he’s expecting to see just about the entire group in attendance for his tournament games.
“Every game’s an opportunity for me to get past that rust ... Doing it in Hawaii would be a great place to start it off."– Justice Sueing
“I think I have a couple friends coming up. I think they’re still trying to make their way there. But my entire family, like I have eight to 10 family members that will be there to support me through this tournament,” Sueing said. “So it’s gonna be great. I don’t think I’ve had that many family members come to a game before, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
Sueing’s mother will have her first chance to see her son play basketball up close and personal in a Buckeye uniform. Several members of Sueing’s family watched him play while he spent his first two years of college at Cal, but he hasn’t played competitively in Hawaii since the 10th grade. That year Sueing transferred to Mater Dei in Santa Ana, California, where he finished out his final two years of high school basketball.
Sueing won’t actually have time to travel back to Oahu during the tournament, but it sounds like that won’t stop him from seeing plenty of familiar faces before, during and after games in Maui.
In terms of what kind of player they’ll be watching, that could go a long way in determining how much success Ohio State has next week.
Sueing looked like the best player on the floor in the Buckeyes’ season opener on Nov. 7, scoring 20 points on 8-for-14 shooting to lead the team. In that contest, Sueing didn’t seem to skip a beat despite last suiting up for the Buckeyes in November 2021. The 6-foot-7 wing had a decent outing in Ohio State’s second matchup, but showed signs of rust on Wednesday, hitting just two of his 10 shots to finish with six points and five turnovers.
But all the time on the sidelines taught Sueing to appreciate the little things about the game, and he’ll have even more to soak in when the ball is tipped off during a tournament that takes place in his home state.
“Every game’s an opportunity for me to get past that rust and to continue to meet the demands that I need to get met for this team so we can win games. Doing it in Hawaii would be a great place to start it off and to continue building upon the goals that I want to achieve,” Sueing said. “And that’s for myself and for the team as well. We have some stuff to do.”
One of three unranked teams in next week’s tournament, the Buckeyes won’t be satisfied to simply get a participation trophy during a trip to the tropics. As happy as Sueing is for his homecoming in Hawaii, he’s hoping to lead Ohio State to three wins in as many days before the team heads back to the mainland.
“I think going into any situation, we’re there to win. We’re trying to come out undefeated, just like all the other teams that are going to the invitational,” Sueing said. “It’s a competitive slate of teams, so it’s gonna be really good games. High intensity, high competition. It’s something that we look for. Coach (Holtmann), he loves that. He loves getting challenged, and every single guy on this team wants to get challenged, too.
“We’re going into this trying to win every single game.”