Bruce Thornton, Meechie Johnson Jr.’s Backcourt Pairing a Full-Circle Moment, Both Motivated to Win For Ohio State

By Andy Anders on June 22, 2024 at 11:03 am
Meechie Johnson Jr. and Bruce Thornton
Johnson photo: Gregory Fisher – USA TODAY Sports

“Back” is a versatile word.

It can serve as a noun, adverb, verb or adjective. Add all the definitions up across those four forms of “back” in Merriam-Webster’s old handbook and you get 18 different meanings for the four-letter term.

It’s fitting, then, that Bruce Thornton and Meechie Johnson Jr. are both back at Ohio State in different senses. Thornton is the final remnant of a 2022 recruiting class that ranked eighth in the country but has not seen any of its players make an NCAA Tournament to date. With a chance to join classmates Felix Okpara, Bowen Hardman or Roddy Gayle Jr. in searching for greener transfer portal pastures or Brice Sensabaugh in the professional ranks, Thornton is back for his junior season in Columbus.

“I feel like I’ve got so much to prove to myself and to the rest of Buckeye Nation that we are a top program in the country,” Thornton said on Thursday. “I just really want to show everybody that me, Meechie, the whole team, the whole staff, that Ohio State basketball is the real deal. So that's why I came back.”

Johnson started his career with the Buckeyes before transferring to South Carolina ahead of his third season of collegiate basketball, playing two years with the Gamecocks and emerging as a star before he came back to Ohio State.

“It's been a blessing coming back, an honor to be welcomed back,” Johnson said. “As Coach (Jake) Diebler has taken over, it's been great with these guys, being with Bruce, a lot of these players he’s brought in. You can just tell the energy, the culture of being at Ohio State and what it means. You can just feel it every day when you're in the weight room, when you're in the gym. It's just about winning. That's where we're headed.”

In a turn of events that calls back to before Thornton’s Ohio State journey got underway, he and Johnson are prepared to be the backcourt backbone of a squad with lofty aspirations.

“I feel like we can accomplish anything we put our minds to,” Thornton said. “I believe that we're putting in work each and every day. From the help of our coaches our teammates and even Buckeye Nation, each and every day we just come in here and install the Ohio State standard. I feel like the last two years I’ve been here haven’t been, if I’m being completely honest.”

“I’ve got so much to prove to myself and to the rest of Buckeye Nation that we are a top program in the country.”– Bruce Thornton on why he returned to Ohio State

Thornton and Johnson will play together in Scarlet and Gray for the first time in 2024-25, but their paths previously crossed at the school for one weekend 31 months ago.

Johnson served as Thornton’s host on a visit to Ohio State during the second weekend of September in 2021. Johnson was in the midst of his second season with the Buckeyes, scoring just 4.4 points per game in 17.7 minutes while shooting 30.8% from the field. Thornton was a four-star prospect who’d been committed to OSU for almost a year at that point.

“It was bad at first because that’s when Ohio State lost to Oregon,” Thornton said. “So that was my first college football game, they lost to Oregon. But after that, going to the dorm and being with Eugene Brown and Zed Key, just being around the team, understanding what was Ohio State. It’s crazy how everything comes full circle and I’m just ready now to get out there and play and win big games.”

After that visit, their paths diverged. Thornton started from day one at Ohio State in the point guard position that Johnson partially vacated, solidifying himself as the Buckeyes’ brightest star in his second year with 15.7 points and 4.8 assists per contest. 

Johnson scored 12.7 points per game in his first year at South Carolina and 14.1 in his second. The Gamecocks went just 11-21 in his first year in Columbia but improved to 26-8 in his second. 

Upon entering the transfer portal, there was a yearning for the Cleveland native to return to the state south of Lake Erie, a hunger to win for his hometown team. The Buckeyes haven't been to an NCAA Tournament since 2022, Johnson's final year in Columbus.

“The second year (at South Carolina), I figured it out,” Johnson said. “Went through some things in the summer, learned some things, and was able to turn it around and win. Ohio State, it’s the same, for real. That’s why I came back. That’s the thing me and Bruce talked about, I want to do something that ain’t been done here in a couple years, and that’s not just to get in the tournament, but to win it. That’s the goal, just to make history. That’s why we came back. That’s our purpose.”

Johnson’s on- and off-court maturation has been well-documented through his soon-to-be five-year college career, but at his core he remains the same person. 

“His growth as a man, as a leader, his maturity, is different,” Diebler said. “And he's still the same, fun-loving, hardworking – he's not a kid, he's a young man now. But I think some of those foundational things that make him the special person he is are still the same. But he's grown as a leader. He’s matured. He's consistent. I've been really impressed with his consistency in those areas since he's been here.”

Thornton and Johnson will now get to work learning how to play off of each other. Both were star point guards on their respective teams last year, meaning someone will have to move to the shooting guard spot, likely Johnson. Both will have plenty of opportunities to play floor general in either case, however.

Part of Diebler’s strategy in the transfer portal has been adding versatility and athleticism to play more free-flowing basketball. Johnson believes he and Thornton can both threaten defenses whether on the ball or off of it.

“There’s gonna be times when Bruce is gonna be on the ball a lot when he’s cooking, doing his thing, making plays,” Johnson said. “He’s a great playmaker, one of the best assist leaders in the Big Ten. So yeah, he's gonna be on the ball a lot. But if you watch me play at South Carolina, I was able to play off the ball too. So there will be times where I'm on the ball, he's off the ball, that's the point of having good guards.”

A winning desire brought both Johnson and Thornton back to Ohio State to finally play together. All that’s left is to see what heights they can soar to.

“I'm so excited about what our backcourt can be,” Diebler said. “It's going to help drive this team all season long.”

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