Ohio State’s second loss of the season is hardly one to hang your head about.
Neither was its first, for that matter.
Two tight defeats to top-20 teams in either neutral or road environments? You’ll take it if you’re Chris Holtmann, whose young Buckeye team has shown plenty of fight and potential even in losing efforts.
In fact, a Justice Sueing layup with 2:20 to play Wednesday kept Ohio State within six points of 17th-ranked Duke amid the customary hostilities at vaunted Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Buckeyes didn’t have quite enough in the tank to pull off a second straight upset over the Bue Devils, but they weren’t exactly expected to coming in.
Mitigating the impact of Duke’s offensive rebounding, which ranked No. 1 in the country by percentage entering the game, was a major point of emphasis for the Buckeyes. Despite being significantly out-manned in terms of size, Ohio State finished the contest with only three fewer rebounds than the Blue Devils. The Buckeyes held Duke under its season average for offensive boards, and Duke had only eight second-chance points in the 81-72 win.
That size certainly showed up in other ways, as Ohio State committed 25 fouls and sent Duke to the free-throw line a whopping 30 times by night’s end. The Blue Devils knocked down 26 of those, which accounted for nearly a third of their total points.
But Ohio State finished dead even with Duke in points in the paint, with each side scoring 36. Not to mention, Duke’s size is an outlier in terms of the opponents Ohio State will face on a game-to-game basis this season. Holtmann said Tuesday Duke is “as big as any team we’ll play all year,” and with two 7-footers in the starting lineup alone, he wasn’t engaging in hyperbole.
With 6-foot-8 center Zed Key and 6-foot-11 freshman Felix Okpara being the only two scholarship centers on the roster, 6-foot-5 guard Isaac Likekele had to spend time matching up one-on-one with five-star, 7-foot freshman Kyle Filipowski in the post on Wednesday.
Even in a game in which three Buckeyes fouled out and Key finished with four fouls of his own, Ohio State was far from outclassed. The Buckeyes actually won the second half, 43-42, outshot the Blue Devils percentage-wise and got to the free-throw line 17 times in their own right in the final 20 minutes.
Ohio State was given plenty of chances to fold. It could’ve packed it in after Duke finished the first half strong to take a double-digit lead to halftime, and especially when the Blue Devils went up 13 with 15:55 to play in front of screaming fans at home.
Instead, the Buckeyes dug in and made several valiant efforts to pull off the comeback.
Many of those runs were spearheaded by Key, who was the only returning Buckeye to log minutes in last year’s upset win over then-No. 1 Duke in Columbus. The Buckeye big man finished with a career-high 21 points, topping his 20-point performance against the Blue Devils in 2021, and scored 17 of those in the second half alone.
Key didn’t miss a shot in the final 20 minutes, of which he played 19, and hit seven of his eight free-throw attempts. Key was already enjoying a career-best season before Wednesday’s road trip, and his showcase against the Blue Devils was another positive indicator for the year he could have.
And such a season is exactly what Holtmann needs out of one of the Buckeyes’ few returning veterans, given the high volume of true freshmen and new faces on the roster.
But so far, the first-year Buckeyes have held up well. Wednesday was the quietest night of the season for Brice Sensabaugh, who finished with just four points and five fouls in 14 minutes, but he’s already shown he can put up points against legitimate competition. Sensabaugh entered the evening leading Ohio State in scoring at 15.8 points per game. Last week against then-No. 17 San Diego State, which possesses one of the best defenses in the country, Sensabaugh scored 17 points on 5-for-10 shooting.
Sensabaugh has stolen most of the headlines as far as Ohio State freshmen are concerned, but starting point guard Bruce Thornton continues to emerge as he gets his feet underneath him in the early portion of the season. Thornton scored just 16 points through the first three games, but broke out in the Maui Invitational to average 13 points a night for the Buckeyes. That roll continued Wednesday, as Thornton hit five of his eight shot attempts to finish with 11 points against Duke.
Okpara and Roddy Gayle haven’t made as big an impact for the Buckeyes on a regular basis thus far, but all four should only improve as they get acclimated to the caliber of play at the college level.
In the immediate future, the consistency (or lack thereof) of Sueing may be as crucial to Ohio State’s success as anything. The sixth-year forward started the year with a 20-point showcase in the season opener, but went on to average just 8.5 points per game on 29.3% shooting over the next four contests. In the Buckeyes’ first ranked win of the season against Texas Tech, Sueing appeared to shed any rust with a career-high 33-point explosion on 12-for-19 shooting.
A night like that would likely have put Ohio State over the top against Duke, although quite that level of production was never going to be sustainable for long stretches. Certainly, though, the Buckeyes will need more than 16 combined points on 37.5% shooting from Sueing and Sensabaugh if they are to continue being the team’s leading scorers.
Still, the varied nature of Ohio State’s contributions should pay dividends throughout the year, and even in early-season form, the Buckeyes are hanging tough with some of the top teams in the country.