Ohio State May Require Significant Contributions From “Really Exciting” Freshman Class in 2023-24

By Griffin Strom on March 18, 2023 at 8:35 am
Scotty Middleton, Devin Royal
Instagram/@scottymiddleton_ | Instagram/@dev.royall

Relative to his previous five years at Ohio State, and even the three at Butler before that, the 2022-23 season was an outlier for Chris Holtmann.

For the first time since his second year as a head coach back at Gardner-Webb in 2011-12, Holtmann’s team won fewer than 20 games and finished with a losing record. And for the first time in 10 years, he missed the NCAA Tournament. Beyond that, but perhaps directly related to it, Holtmann had to rely on heavy contributions from true freshmen more than ever before.

When the Buckeyes started four freshmen on the road against Purdue on Feb. 19, it was the first time Holtmann had ever done so. In fact, he scarcely started three freshmen in the same game before that, and never before 2022-23. One could argue Malaki Branham finished his 2021-22 freshman campaign as Ohio State’s best player, but his breakout success – and the Buckeyes’ reliance on it – was something of an anomaly at that point.

Ohio State struggled mightily through most of January and February in a stretch that torpedoed its season, and asking several freshmen to shoulder a significant load was an undeniable factor. But by the end of the season, at which point Holtmann had all but turned the team over to the freshmen, the rapid progress of the Buckeyes’ youth looked like their biggest strength

With Bruce Thornton, Roddy Gayle and Felix Okpara all expected to return and improve ahead of next season, it’s safe to say Holtmann won’t need four freshmen to start in any game in 2023-24. However, that doesn’t mean one or more members of Ohio State's incoming sixth-ranked national recruiting class won’t end up earning starting roles or emerging as crucial performers for the Buckeyes.

“It’s an exciting class to build upon this current class we have.”– Chris Holtmann on the 2023 class

If Ohio State hopes to dramatically reverse its fortunes over the course of a single offseason, it just might need them to. At a minimum, the Buckeyes need the incoming class to get on board with the coaching staff’s message and directive, which is something Holtmann said took too long to happen this past year.

“We have four new (incoming freshmen). Whether or not we add someone through the transfer portal or whatever, we have to get that message,” Holtmann said at the Big Ten Tournament. “I think the benefit is we have some really important guys that have been through it that are now returning that can speak to the importance of that and can live it. I'm not saying we didn't last year, but it was just such a new group last year.”

Luckily for Holtmann, Ohio State’s rising sophomores already seem committed to getting the next group on the same page as soon as possible as they transition into leadership roles with a full season under their belt.

“I believe us freshmen and the returning players for next year need to set a level of intensity from early on. I don’t think we should be able to wait all the way to February or March to play some of our best basketball,” Gayle said following Ohio State’s final game of the season. “I think it should be coming in January, where I think we should already be together. With a decent amount of returners next year, I think our chemistry will be a lot better. It’s up to people like Bruce, me, I have to step up a little bit just to show the freshmen and the newcomers how we want to play.”

Once it gets acclimated, Ohio State’s 2023 class has enough talent to be just as impactful as the preceding group. It may not have quite as much opportunity to do so, but the incoming freshmen actually hold a higher class ranking than the 2022 class. The 2023 class includes three top-50 overall prospects in the 247Sports composite rankings: 6-foot-4 combo guard Taison Chatman (No. 36 overall), 6-foot-7 wing Scotty Middleton (No. 43) and Pickerington Central forward Devin Royal (No. 49). The Buckeyes are also bringing in the fifth-ranked player in Ohio, 6-foot-11 center Austin Parks.

Ohio State’s 2023 Signees
AUSTIN PARKS C No. 171 No. 25 FEB. 13, 2022
DEVIN ROYAL PF No. 49 No. 8 AUG. 3, 2022
SCOTTY MIDDLETON SF No. 43 No. 9 AUG. 6, 2022
TAISON CHATMAN CG No. 36 No. 11 SEPT. 20, 2022

When asked about the group on 97.1 The Fan Monday, Holtmann first raved about Royal, who earned Ohio Mr. Basketball honors Wednesday as he tries to lead his high school to a second straight state championship this weekend.

“We’ve got a really exciting class, as we’ve talked about really all year. Devin Royal’s an outstanding kind of combo wing-forward-guard,” Holtmann said. “Just a multi-dimensional, multi-versatile player from Columbus. Playing in the final four this weekend, excited about his team’s progress. We think he’s gonna be a really, really good player for us. He was a major target for us from day one, and just really excited about Devin.”

Middleton hails from Sunrise Christian in Wichita, Kansas, and the wiry wing possesses the type of defensive reputation that could allow him to see the court straight away, even if his offensive skill set still needs some fine-tuning. Despite playing similar positions, Holtmann said Ohio State can play Middleton and Royal at the same time.

“Scotty Middleton is a 6-7, similar (to Royal), you can certainly play Devin and Scotty together. They’re just multi-dimensional bigger wing-guard-forwards,” Holtmann said. “Scotty has the ability to really defend multiple positions. He’s excellent laterally. Got outstanding length at 6-7.”

That pair could be needed to play significant minutes early for Ohio State. The Buckeyes will lose sixth-year forward Justice Sueing this offseason, and freshman forward Brice Sensabaugh is likely headed to the NBA draft. Add in departing senior guards Sean McNeil and Isaac Likekele, who both played the three position plenty in different lineups for Ohio State in 2022, and there could be a whole lot of minutes available at forward.

Given how Thornton and Gayle finished the season, they figure to have prohibitively locked down starting jobs in the Buckeye backcourt by the start of next year. That could make things a little harder for Chatman, the top-rated player in Ohio State’s class, to earn regular minutes right away. However, the loss of Sensabaugh and McNeil means the Buckeyes will be without two of their better 3-point shooters. Chatman may have the most developed offensive game of any of the Buckeyes’ incoming recruits, and certainly figures to be the most capable long-distance shooter.

“Taison Chatman’s a combo guard who can just really do a lot of things at kind of the combo guard position,” Holtmann said.

As a three-star big man who’ll have to contend with returning centers Zed Key and Felix Okpara for minutes, Parks could find it challenging to earn significant time right off the bat. But Holtmann has openly discussed plans to play Key and Okpara at the same time next year, which suggests the Buckeyes are open to utilizing bigger lineups with three legitimate big men on the roster.

“(Parks) has got good size right now, he’s got just a really strong, physical body,” Holtmann said. “He’s a good vertical athlete, he’s gotta get better at defending ball screens and those kind of things, but provides great size for us, physicality. Really excited about this class.”

Where Eugene Brown and Tanner Holden fit in a potential 2023-24 lineup remains unclear after both veteran wings occupied smaller roles than they might have imagined this past season. Holtmann has brought in three transfer additions in each of the past two seasons, and depending on how things shake out with the roster, the Buckeyes could address some of their needs through further portal additions this offseason.

But if the final stretch of the 2022-23 season is any indication, Ohio State is embracing a youth movement as it retools for the future. To that end, it just might find more success trusting another group of freshmen as Holtmann stacks his two best recruiting classes to date on top of each other this offseason.

“It’ll be a busy next couple months. … But it’s an exciting class to build upon this current class we have,” Holtmann said.

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