Brice Sensabaugh confirmed what was long suspected on Wednesday.
The breakout star of Ohio State’s 2022-23 men’s basketball season won’t be back for a sophomore campaign in scarlet and gray. One year of college basketball was all it took for Sensabaugh to be considered a first-round pick in this month’s upcoming NBA draft, and he’ll follow Malaki Branham as the second consecutive one-and-done prospect at Ohio State.
It’s a big loss for the Buckeyes, but not one they didn’t see coming. Even during the Big Ten Tournament in April, head coach Chris Holtmann alluded to the bright future ahead of Sensabaugh when discussing the knee injury that forced him to sit out of the Buckeyes’ final game of the year. And when Ohio State’s young returning core discussed the future of the program following the final game of the season, Sensabaugh’s name was notably omitted from the conversation.
Before the 2022-23 season began, Holtmann envisioned the success the program could enjoy in 2023-24 if he managed to keep his four top freshmen together for more than one season. And while Ohio State still has Bruce Thornton, Roddy Gayle and Felix Okpara, it will be without its top scorer from a season ago.
Sensabaugh averaged 16.3 points per game to lead all Buckeyes, becoming the first true freshman to do so since D’Angelo Russell in 2014-15. Despite being just the third-highest-ranked freshman in Ohio State’s class, Sensabaugh quickly became the Buckeyes’ go-to scorer, eclipsing the 20-point threshold on 11 occasions and closing out the year as a third-team All-Big Ten selection.
While his defensive shortcomings were clear to see, so was Sensabaugh’s offensive impact, which won’t be an easy thing to replace in 2023-24. But the Buckeyes must do so nonetheless, even if there isn’t an obvious answer as to who will fill Sensabaugh’s shoes as The Guy for Ohio State in the season to come.
We took a stab at assessing some possible answers to that question in an examination of several Buckeyes who could potentially take the mantle from Sensabaugh this year.
G Bruce Thornton
2022-23 season stats: 10.6 PPG, 45.6 FG%, 37.5 3FG%
In terms of total points, Thornton is Ohio State’s returning scoring leader in 2023-24. As a true freshman, the four-star point guard recruit was the only Buckeye to start all 35 games for Ohio State and led the team in minutes played.
That means heading into year two, there’s little doubt Thornton will have ample opportunities to lead the pack in scoring. Thornton’s average of 10.6 points was third-best among Buckeye who played more than 25 games last season, and the only two ahead of him – Sensabaugh and Justice Sueing – are both out of the program.
The Georgia native seemed to catch his stride after the first couple weeks of the year, averaging 12.6 points per game on 52.6% shooting and 51.7% from 3-point range during a nine-game stretch from late November to the end of December. But after that, Thornton experienced his fair share of growing pains.
As the Buckeyes began to plummet, so did Thornton's caliber of play. Over 10 games from Jan. 1 to Feb. 2, a period in which Ohio State went 2-8, Thornton scored just 5.4 points on 27.1% from the field and 25.9% from three. Thornton was vocal about the toll his first college season took on him, but once he broke through, he showed off the potential that made him one of the top prospects in the country.
Thornton’s resurgence started with a 22-point explosion in a tight loss on the road against Michigan and he didn’t slow down much after that. In the final 13 games of the season, Thornton averaged 14.5 points while shooting 51.4% from the floor and 36.7% from long range. Thornton was rewarded for his stellar four-game stretch in the Big Ten Tournament with a spot on the All-Tournament Team, becoming just the 10th freshman to do so.
That end-of-year run may be all the convincing one needs to feel like Thornton could lead the Buckeyes in scoring as a sophomore, and especially if he takes a significant leap with a full season under his belt.
Thornton persevered through the toughest Ohio State season in the Holtmann era and pushed through the freshman wall, and the experience he gained along the way should make him even better in 2023-24.
F Jamison Battle
2022-23 season stats (Minnesota): 12.4 PPG, 37.1 FG%, 31.1 3FG%
Only one player on the retooled Buckeye roster has actually led a Big Ten team in scoring for an entire season. For that reason alone, Minnesota transfer forward Jamison Battle may be the best bet to provide instant go-to offense for Ohio State in 2023-24, perhaps only besides Thornton.
Battle was already a proven top option at George Washington before taking a step up in competition, but his production didn't dip upon coming to the Big Ten in 2021-22. The 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward led the Gophers with an average of 17.5 points per game that year, shooting 45% from the field and hitting 36.6% of his 7.1 3-point attempts each night.
However, his follow-up season at Minnesota wasn’t quite as successful. Battle’s scoring average dropped to 12.4 points per game and he shot just 37.1% from the field and 31.1% from beyond the arc. Battle dealt with injury issues during his fourth year of college basketball and struggled to be quite as productive with North Carolina transfer Dawson Garcia – who averaged 15.3 points per game in his first year at Minnesota – on the floor.
On one hand, Battle has more Big Ten experience than most of the Buckeye roster and spent two seasons as either a first or second scoring option in the conference. On the other hand, Battle may struggle to adjust to a new team that was largely turned over to young players like Thornton and Gayle late last season – even if he had little trouble transitioning to the Big Ten two seasons ago.
Another factor in Battle’s favor is his 3-point shooting prowess, which Ohio State will need in spades after losing the likes of Sensabaugh and Sean McNeil this offseason. Battle hasn’t shot fewer than 6.4 3-pointers per game in any season of his collegiate career, and he’s hit a total of 257 threes to this point. Ohio State often didn’t attempt enough 3-pointers last season, and Battle may be tasked with stretching the floor consistently given the shooting that’s departing from the program.
Battle should be a surefire Game 1 starter for Ohio State, which should only improve his chances of scoring at a high rate in his final season of college basketball.
Another Darkhorse Freshman
There may not be one incoming freshman in particular who screams potential scoring leader for the Buckeyes, but recent history suggests one of Ohio State’s first-year talents could outperform expectations right out of the gates.
Malaki Branham wasn’t on any preseason draft boards in 2021-22, and averaged just 6.3 points per game through his first 10 games of college basketball. After that, though, Branham dominated Big Ten opponents to average 17 points per game on 52.8% shooting in the final 22 games of the season. Branham didn’t lead Ohio State in scoring for the full season, but he may have finished the season as the Buckeyes’ go-to scoring option en route to being selected No. 20 overall by the San Antonio Spurs after just one season in college.
Sensabaugh’s scoring ability was heralded entering the Buckeye program, but he wasn’t even a top-60 overall prospect in the 2022 class. After the exploits we outlined at the start of the article, Sensabaugh is well on his way to becoming Ohio State’s second first-round draft pick in as many years.
So who could fit that mold in 2023-24? Ohio State has three top-50 prospects entering the program in combo guard Taison Chatman (No. 40) and four-star wings Devin Royal (No. 48) and Scotty Middleton (No. 49). Chatman may be the purest scorer of the bunch, but he could have a hard time beating out either Thornton or Gayle for minutes. While Royal and Middleton were both prolific scorers at the high school level, they figure to need some time to develop offensively in the Big Ten.
But as the past two seasons proved, we may not necessarily see a breakout campaign coming from a freshman ahead of time. And in terms of positional needs, Ohio State will likely need one of its freshmen to start right away.
No matter who leads the Buckeyes in scoring this season, it will likely be more of a by-committee approach. Then again, the same thing was said ahead of last season before Sensabaugh emerged as the unquestioned top scoring threat.
Of course, a couple of players we haven’t mentioned have a chance to put up big scoring numbers as well. In the final three games of the season, Gayle averaged 14.7 points per game and closed his freshman year with a season-high 20 points in the Big Ten Tournament.
Senior center Zed Key is Ohio State’s returning scoring leader in terms of points per game, putting up an average of 10.8 in 25 appearances before his season came to an end due to an ongoing shoulder injury. If Key can maintain the pace he began both of the past two years for a full season, perhaps he could take another leap. But Key will also have to overcome offseason rehab and the projected improvement of Okpara at the center position.
The Buckeyes haven’t even assembled on campus to begin summer practices yet, so any speculation at this point is just that – speculation. But as Ohio State figures things out in the leadup to the season, there will be multiple candidates who could help replace Sensabugh’s sizeable scoring contributions.