As far as team results, the Ohio State men’s basketball season has been an abject failure for all involved.
For the true freshmen who hoped to play meaningful roles for the Buckeyes in their first season, though, losses haven’t stopped them from seeing increased opportunities on the floor as the regular season begins winding down. And for the future of the program beyond 2022-23, that experience could pay off significantly down the line.
Bruce Thornton, Brice Sensabaugh, Roddy Gayle and Felix Okpara all had starts under their belt before Sunday’s matchup with third-ranked Purdue. But never before had all four freshmen started the same contest. In fact, Chris Holtmann had never even started three freshmen in the same game prior to this season.
“they get experiences going into these environments that are just burned into their memory. It is going to really fuel I think a lot of things for us moving forward.”– Chris Holtmann
“Never. I don’t even know how much that’s been done, to be honest with you, in college basketball. I think it’s a real rarity to start two, much less four,” Holtmann told 97.1 The Fan Monday. “You just don’t see it much. We’ve started three a number of times this year, and when you go and look in the record books, I had never done three freshmen in my career. Hadn’t done two a whole lot, to be honest with you.”
Okpara got the start against Purdue out of sheer necessity, as regular starting center Zed Key missed the game with a shoulder injury. A matchup with Big Ten scoring leader and 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey is a big ask for any player around the country, and that was certainly the case for Ohio State’s first-year big man.
Edey finished with 26 points and 11 rebounds as the centerpiece in Purdue’s 27-point destruction of the Buckeyes at Mackey Arena. The freshmen-centric starting lineup didn’t lead Ohio State to a win against the Boilermakers, but Holtmann liked the early minutes he got out of the group before Purdue took over late in the first half and into the second.
“Zed’s injury and then wanting those guys to play, it probably was a little bit unfair to them, even though we did get off to a great start, an excellent start. Really good start,” Holtmann said. “But in some ways it’s probably a little bit unfair to them that we’re throwing them against the third team in the country on the road after they’ve had two losses. But they competed and played well and had good moments. I’m worried about the overall fatigue of being a freshman, but no, I’ve never done that before. Four is a lot to do; home, road, regardless.”
Key’s latest shoulder tweak has left the rest of his season in question, as Holtmann said “it'll be a decision between he and his family” as to whether he’ll return for the final few games. Holtmann said last week that Key may require surgery after the season, but after re-aggravating the injury against Iowa on Thursday, that timeline may be sped up.
If that’s the case, Okpara should only see more minutes in the final four games of the regular season and in the Big Ten Tournament.
“Zed's injury was significant,” Holtmann said. “He was a guy, we might have even talked in the preseason where we said we're gonna be much deeper next year at the five. This year we knew we were gonna be a little bit thin, so it was gonna be hard if we lost any one of those guys for a significant period of time. I think what that does is gonna continue to provide opportunities for Felix to grow.”
Another Buckeye freshman has earned a starting role this month despite battling an injury issue of his own. Gayle’s dealt with an ankle injury for weeks, and even after tweaking it against Iowa, he’s played 22 or more minutes in each of the past three games. Before that, Gayle had only logged 22 minutes in one game all year, and that was back in early December.
“Roddy did a great job fighting through that ankle. It’s a little weaker after he turned it a couple weeks ago, and then he turned it again in the Iowa game,” Holtmann said. “But he battled and had some really good moments.”
Thornton is the only Buckeye on the roster to start every game for Ohio State this season. Sensabaugh was briefly removed from the starting lineup for two games toward the start of February, but he’s been reinserted into it over the past three contests.
With the experience the 2022-23 freshmen will have gained by the end of their first year, Holtmann believes they’ll mesh well with next season’s incoming class, which features four prospects in total and three of the top 50 recruits in the cycle.
“It’s a really exciting group that we have coming in. For the first time in a while, we brought four freshmen in this year, four freshmen in next year, and that’s a lot,” Holtmann said. “But I think that the way we’ve played these freshmen this year, they’re not going to feel as much like sophomores next year. The number of minutes, they’ve played, they’re gonna be an older group.”
Sensabaugh could enter the NBA draft after the season, and in the age of the transfer portal, there’s no guarantee that all four freshmen will remain in the program next year. But if they do, Holtmann is excited about the roster he could have in 2023-24.
“What you have with our incoming freshmen next year is Scotty Middleton, who is a tremendous defensive player right now at 6-7, great length, great defensive versatility, has an alpha presence to him as a defender,” Holtmann said. “Devin is gonna be tremendous. Devin’s kind of a multi-dimensional forward. Obviously people in Columbus and in our state know Devin Royal and what he can be and how exciting he is.
“And obviously we have a 6-11, 260-70 pound center in Austin (Parks) who’s got offensive versatility, high skill level, big body. And Taison (Chatman)’s just tremendous, got a real high upside. Gonna need to continue to grow and get stronger, but a tremendous combo guard and great size. So it’s a class that I think really fits with this current class that we have.”
There’s no way to sugarcoat it; even after bringing in the best freshman class of his career, this season has been Holtmann’s worst in Columbus by far. But at minimum, he hopes the hardships his young talent has endured on the court will pay dividends in terms of both experience and motivation for next season and beyond.
“When you have a group that has played as much as our freshmen have, they get experiences going into these environments that are just burned into their memory. It is going to really fuel I think a lot of things for us moving forward,” Holtmann said. “They know more now what to expect when you go to these places and you play some of these people at home. You can’t get that experience without going and fighting those battles on the floor, and our guys have done that and I think taken a lot from it and will continue to take a lot from it, for sure.”