For a while there, there was a lot of talk about next season.
During his weekly radio show and press conference appearances throughout much of February, Chris Holtmann frequently harped on his hope that the experience gained by his freshman class this season – despite the onslaught of losses – would pay dividends for the future.
As it turns out, Holtmann and the Buckeyes won’t have to wait all offseason to prove doubters wrong.
Sure, Ohio State’s improbable three-game win streak in the Big Ten Tournament may not mean all that much this season if it doesn’t result in a championship win – the only way the Buckeyes can earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament. But after all the struggles they suffered through up to now, the Buckeyes are using what might be their final platform of the season to show that their ceiling is much higher than their regular-season record suggested.
“We knew we were capable this entire year. We had our struggles like every team has, but ours is a little bit more,” Justice Sueing said after Ohio State’s 68-58 win over Michigan State, which earned them a spot in Friday’s Big Ten Tournament semifinal matchup against No. 1 seed Purdue. “These are guys I'm running with, man, so I'm excited for noon (1 p.m. Eastern Time) tip-off tomorrow. Yeah, I think we're going to be ready for this.”
As a sixth-year senior, Sueing shouldered a significant portion of the blame for Ohio State’s fall from grace during the first two months of the new year. But Sueing’s late-season turnaround has coincided with the Buckeyes’ own. Sueing scored at least 10 points in each of the past six games, and Ohio State is 5-1 in that stretch.
On Friday, the Buckeyes were without season-scoring leader Brice Sensabaugh (knee). Ohio State needed an early offensive spark plug to account for that absence, and the Buckeyes found it in Sueing. The Hawaii native scored eight of the first 10 points for OSU and finished with 14 for the game. He tied his season-high with four 3-point makes, including two in a second half that saw the Spartans tighten the gap late.
"If we keep playing together with a free spirit and this aggression on defense, we're going to keep winning."– Bruce Thornton
“I see him make those shots in practice all the time. Him coming out aggressive, we love that,” Bruce Thornton said. “He keeps the defense on their toes. But him coming out like that gave us a spark. To see his leadership the last couple games is beyond believable. He showed the young guys the way how to play the Ohio State way. If he keeps playing like this, he's going to be very special and very hard to beat us.”
As of late, nobody on the Buckeye roster has played better than Thornton, who is averaging 17.4 points per game in his last seven and led Ohio State with 21 points and six assists against Michigan State.
With Zed Key out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery, freshman center Felix Okapra has come into his own as well. The 6-foot-11 big man finished with eight points, eight rebounds and five blocked shots on Friday, and will be an even bigger factor on Saturday against 7-foot-4 Big Ten Player of the Year Zach Edey.
“I think playing them – and my AD (Gene Smith) kept saying it. Play them early. Play the freshmen early,” Holtmann said. “I think playing them has given them maybe some confidence at this point in the season that we've really needed. Obviously Bruce has hit a whole 'nother level with his play, but Felix, if a guy can control the game with scoring less than 10 points, he's a prime example because I think he did.”
In the past two games, though, no freshman’s performance has been more revelatory than Roddy Gayle's. The top-rated player in OSU’s 2022 class, Gayle’s offensive development seemed to be a bit behind Thornton and Sensabaugh’s throughout most of the season. But on Thursday, Gayle scored nine points in the final 6:02 to lead Ohio State to victory against Iowa. On Friday, he put up a season-high 15 points, with 12 of those coming in the second half.
And several of his buckets were crucial moments in crunch time as Ohio State staved off an MSU comeback.
“Yesterday's performance just basically gave me even more confidence than I had, knowing that my teammates and my coaches have the same belief or even more confidence in me,” Gayle said. “Like I just really just stayed aggressive and try to play aggressive and play the best winning basketball.”
Sean McNeil only scored five points on Friday, but he scored 30 combined points in the first two tournament games for the Buckeyes before that. Even Tanner Holden, who hadn’t played since Feb. 16, came in and almost immediately knocked down a 3-pointer to give the Buckeyes a boost in the first half.
“Of course we want Brice on the court. He provides so much spirit with his way of playing and everything. Next man stepped up,” Thornton said. “Roddy stepped up. Tanner came in and made a big three. Felix had a block. We played with collective effort, and as you see, if we keep playing together with a free spirit and this aggression on defense, we're going to keep winning. So we'll keep this up and onto the next.”
Nothing has changed about Holtmann’s aforementioned premise. All the experience Ohio State’s young players are gaining in the postseason will undoubtedly benefit them moving forward. But the timeline at which that improvement was supposed to happen seems to have accelerated over the past couple weeks, and the veterans are showing they aren’t willing to end their careers quietly.
Suddenly it’s all come together for Ohio State, and two wins removed from an NCAA Tournament berth, it might be the hottest team in the Big Ten.
“I came out before this game and said, man, what an incredible experience for our freshmen to be in this environment, to see this, to see the game before, the Rutgers-Purdue game, incredible environment,” Holtmann said. “This is just invaluable experience for these young guys. You don't love college basketball if you're not champing at the bit to get out there and compete. So I love that for our guys. I do think it's really, really important. Again, what I'm most pleased with is how we've played in the last month, even when we lost at Michigan State. Just really pleased with that.”