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Know Your Non-conference Opponent: Ohio State

You know you're a powerful organization when people can make you throw a little fit by not using the definite article.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oral Roberts at Ohio State IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

I'm going to get this out of the way right off the jump: I've never seen that game. I was in college at the time and, as an ostensible member of the baseball team, I was in the dugout at a game while it went down. I kept sneaking into the clubhouse under more and more ridiculous pretenses to check texts from Brad, who was keeping me posted from our dorm room. I have no interest in watching a replay.

Ohio State was excellent last year, at least at the start. They went 18-4 in their first 22, and two of those losses were by single baskets in conference road games at Northwestern and Purdue. They were solidly in the top 10 of the KenPom and definitely in the discussion for a 1 seed. They then gave away a 75% win prob against Michigan, a 90% against Michigan State, and 88% against Illinois on their way to dropping their last 4 regular season games. Winning 3 games in the conference tournament wasn't enough to get them back onto the 1 line, but they snagged a 2 seed which is also pretty much a free pass to the second round. Instead they lost to 15 seed Oral Roberts in one of the best games of the tournament. It deserved a full crowd.

That didn't get head coach Chris Holtmann fired, and it probably shouldn't have. He's an excellent coach who cut his teeth at Gardner-Webb before breaking through at Butler. In 7 years at the high-major level, he has produced 5 top-25 offenses. His teams have done that by being pretty good at shooting and excellent at ball security. They play slowly and never turn the ball over. He's also had 4 top-25 defenses in that time, focusing on choking off opportunities in the paint and crushing the defensive glass. They do not force turnovers; don't watch OSU games under Holtmann if you like turnovers.

Key departures

What if I told you your team could get rid of the guy that cost them an NCAA tournament game they had a 97% chance of winning with under two minutes left? Pretty good, right? In the last 2 minutes of regulation plus the 5 minute OT period, Duane Washington, Jr. shot 1-7/0-4/1-3 and turned it over once while his teammates were 2-4 from the field. Maybe give the ball up, man; you're gassed. On the year, Washington averaged 16/3/3 and shot well from all three levels to lead the team in scoring. He is now an Indiana Pacer.

Kind of weirdly for a high-major team that put together a good season, that's about it for departures from OSU.

Key returnees

Perhaps the biggest returnee both figuratively and literally is 6'7", 240-pound center EJ Liddell. He's an excellent rebounder at both ends and scores well around the rim, but most of his damage was done in the mid-range. Hoop-math.com shows his having taken 164 two-point jumpers against 169 shots of all other types combined. He shot well from all over, posting an EFG% of 51.5% on his way to a game line of 16.2/6.7/1.8. He'll be joined in the frontcourt by Justice Sueing, who posted 10.7/5.5/1.5 in his maiden voyage as a Buckeye last year. He's also a three-level scorer, but he does a little more slashing than Liddell.

Farther from the bucket, point guard CJ Walker is back for an additional senior year. He led the team in assists and assist rate last season on his way to 9.5/3.2/4.4. He's a decent shooter with limited range, but he's cash from the line. He has struggled with turnovers a bit on his career.

The frontcourt is going to be crowded. Kyle Young and Justin Ahrens are both forwards who were hugely efficient scorers last year. Both posted ORtg of 125+, easily within the top 50 in the nation. Young is bigger and a better rebounder, and he can actually score inside the arc, where Ahrens only shot 7 two-pointers all year. Both are excellent three-point shooters, though Ahrens does so with much more volume than Young.

Also in the mix up front are Zed Key and Seth Towns. Towns is a Harvard transfer who just can't stay healthy. When he is, he's a volume scorer with a silky jumper who can rebound well. The big question is whether or not he'll get back to what he was at his best. Key is a rising sophomore who scored fairly efficiently as a freshman and absolutely crushes the glass. He also crushes opponents, fouling almost 7 times per 40 minutes played. He's a big lad who does all his work inside the arc. His name is what English people call the button you push to make this letter show up: Z.

Incoming players

Something made OSU feel like they needed another big man, so former Butler and Indiana center Joey Brunk has transferred in. Brunk is a beast on the glass whose scoring efficiency to a step back at Indiana last year. He’ll turn 24 this year and already has almost 100 collegiate games under his belt.

Coming in to complement all that veterancy is a two-man class ranked just inside the top 50 nationally. The jewel of the pair is Malaki Branham, a 6’4” shooting guard out of Akron. He’s a good defender and rebounder in addition to being a prolific slasher. His shooting stroke is a work in progress, but it is progressing. The whole package comes to a four-star, top-50 guard who was recruited by everyone from Akron to Alabama before landing at Ohio State.

Alongside Branham is Kalen Etlzer, a 6’8” power forward from Van Wert, Ohio. Coming into the crowded situation in the frontcourt, the three-star recruit has chosen to take a developmental redshirt this season.

Outlook

This is an OSU team poised for a strong follow-up to their prematurely truncated tournament run from a year ago. They bring back a ton of experienced talent, and Coach Holtmann always has his team ready to go (except for against Oral Roberts). You have to imagine a sense of unfinished business hangs around this group. They’ll take on Akron, Niagara, and Bowling Green at home before heading to Cintas. This game will be their first big test of the season, just like it is for Xavier. Both squads plan to be competing at the top of their conferences before the season is out.