Ohio State bucking trend, counting on freshmen rather than transfers

Thu, Aug 4, 2022

Ohio State bucking trend, counting on freshmen rather than transfers
By John Fanta
AP Sports College Basketball Writer

Ohio State's basketball facility was a lot like a first-grade classroom during the opening days of the school year when the 2022-23 Buckeyes started working out this summer.

Sure, Chris Holtmann recruited his players and is more than familiar with what they have to offer, but even he chuckles when asked if he has gotten a name wrong or has done a double-take when addressing his team.

It's easy to understand why. No team in the Big Ten has gone through a roster overhaul quite like Ohio State, with seven of the program's top eight scorers from last season gone, and a total of eight newcomers entering the program.

While there's plenty for the Buckeyes to figure out in the coming weeks and months, the head coach still has a smile on his face. The 50-year-old Holtmann, who in May received a contract extension through the 2027-28 season, is taking a different path building his team in comparison to the current college basketball storylines.

Of the eight newcomers, five are freshmen. While the Buckeyes' recruiting class does not feature a five-star labeled talent, overall the group is ranked eighth in the country by 247sports.com and is the best in the Big Ten.

Four players from this class are ranked as four-star prospects, with Roddy Gayle Jr., Bruce Thornton, Felix Okpara and Brice Sensabaugh all suiting up in scarlet and gray this season. Holtmann says all four will have the chance to play right away. Combine that with a trio of transfers in point guard Isaac Likekele (Oklahoma State), shooting guard Sean McNeil (West Virginia) and wing Tanner Holden (Wright State), and Holtmann certainly has options to fill out this rotation.

"This has been unlike anything I've ever experienced in my coaching career," Holtmann told AP Sports when asked about the roster turnover. "I would say this is the most new faces that I've had in my coaching career. You don't typically have a freshman class this big in today's game."

In a world where there have been more than 1,700 names in the transfer portal this offseason, many coaches are looking to add to their roster by bringing in experienced three or four-year players who are looking for their next stop.

There are staff members for some programs who are either solely focused on transfers or have stopped recruiting high schoolers because they value experience over having to develop a prospect, never fully knowing if he will pan out.

Holtmann has brought in a trio of transfers but sees this incoming freshman class as the key piece of the puzzle for the Buckeyes to make deeper runs in March.

"How do we take the next step?" Holtmann asked.

That's the question he has posed to his staff, and the one he has had plenty of discussions about with Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith.'

The Buckeyes have averaged 21.4 wins per season in Holtmann's five years at the helm. They've made the NCAA Tournament in every season of his tenure, and they have advanced in three of the four appearances.'

What's missing for OSU? Making it to the second weekend of the Big Dance, something the Buckeyes have not achieved in what will be a decade come next March. Winning the Big Ten Tournament is also on the minds of the Buckeyes' staff, as the program made it to the conference title game but fell short to Illinois in 2021.

Holtmann has proven himself to be a consistent winner, but he knows that a deep postseason run is the expectation in Columbus.

"It's all about advancing to late March and into April. It's about winning a Big Ten championship," said Holtmann. "We've been ranked in the top 15 every year we've been here. We've been in the top 10 in three of the five seasons. So, internally, even though we have some questions for this season with so many new guys and youth, my biggest thing I've tried to stress is how we take the next step."

As important as improving as a program is for Holtmann, he's not looking for a quick fix or a breakthrough representing a flash in the pan.'

"I'm not downplaying bringing in seven or eight transfers per year. Guys have done that well," said Holtmann. "But, that's not what we want to do here. I've talked with Gene a lot about this. Our collective vision is to have a blend of experience with a class like we're bringing in now. This is the best recruiting class we've had in our five years. We could struggle some early on, but I think we'll be better for it this season and in the long haul."'

Gone are one-and-done guard Malaki Branham and All-American forward E.J. Liddell to the NBA Draft, two players who certainly serve as an example of the different paths traveled by a player at Ohio State. As happy as Holtmann is for Branham, he did not exactly expect for the Buckeyes' standout to blossom into a top-20 NBA Draft pick.

That said, Holtmann knows what having that caliber of talent says about his program, and it was one of many thoughts in his head when I asked him this question:

So, how do you coach freshmen in 2022 college basketball?

"Normalizing struggle. It's a part of growth," said Holtmann, who said it has gotten more difficult to teach. "You just keep reminding your kids of guys who struggled and then found their way on the other side of that adversity. You explain how rare it is to be a one-and-done, and a first-round draft pick. If you're at Ohio State, and you're not a guaranteed first-round pick, there's no reason to leave at all.

"Look, Jared Sullinger was a top-five player in the country in 2010 and played two years here. Keita Bates-Diop was a top-30 talent in his class and played four years of college basketball. The point is, preparing kids for the challenges in their freshman year is important. Even elite prospects can struggle some. In this day and age, people don't expect it as much, but it's something we try to help our kids learn so that they can be ready to embrace the challenge of life in the Big Ten and beyond."'

There's no question that the opportunities are present for the new Buckeyes on the block to jump right in and get significant minutes. Holtmann didn't rule out the idea that he could have one, if not two freshmen in his starting five.'

"Bruce [Thornton] is physically ready to play the point guard position," said Holtmann of the Georgia Gatorade Player of the Year, who's ranked No. 46 in the 247sports.com composite rankings. "He played the point really well in high school, and honestly, the adjustment for him to our level could be seamless."'

Holtmann also raved about the offensive game of 6-foot-6 wing Brice Sensabaugh. Out of Lake Highland Prep in Orlando, he was named Florida's Mr. Basketball after averaging 25.1 points and 7.2 boards this past season while leading his team to the state tournament semifinals.'

"I think Brice is super gifted offensively," said Holtmann. "We just don't have many people who can do what he can achieve as a scorer."'

Holtmann also said shooting guard Roddy Gayle Jr., the highest-ranked Buckeye recruit according to 247sports.com at No. 45, will be ready to play. Gayle is coming off groin surgery, but he still averaged 15.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game against high level competition in the National Interscholastic Basketball Conference. He has a 40-inch vertical and is a three-level scorer who has a lot of buzz surrounding him.'

The other four-star prospect for the Buckeyes is 6-foot-11 center Felix Okpara, who will get his opportunities this season, but Holtmann said his learning curve will be a little more significant.'

As for the players who are returning this season, junior forward Zed Key will be expected to take on an increased role in year three. He averaged 7.8 points and 5.6 boards per game, falling off in his scoring production after a strong start to the season that included a 20-point outing in an upset win over No. 1 Duke in Columbus.

"He has to grow his game and effectiveness," said Holtmann. "We know he can be a physical presence for us, and now it's about building the skill level. A big key is getting him to become a better ball screen defender in those situations, and a better defender in low-post situations. The other big thing is for him to be ready to go from playing around 20 minutes per game to taking on a larger chunk."'

Another key returnee is Justice Sueing, who missed all but two games last season with an abdominal injury. The season before, the Cal transfer entered Columbus and started all 31 games, averaging 10.7 points and 5.5 rebounds for the Buckeyes.'

"Justice is one of our best players, and I expect him to really break out," said Holtmann. "His injury last season was part of what we went through as a team. We finished three games out of first place in the Big Ten and that put us in a tie for fourth. Injuries impacted us. Health is as important a factor as anything for our team this year."'

And then there are the transfers. Likekele can give Ohio State a real defensive edge because he can switch onto almost anyone and can play two or three positions. Holtmann suggested that the Oklahoma State transfer could play some point-4 for the Buckeyes.

McNeil, who shot 37% from 3 last year and averaged 12.2 points per game, adds a perimeter threat to Ohio State's offense. Holtmann said Holden has had more of a transition to the Buckeyes' level of play, just having come from Wright State as opposed to the power-conference schools the other two transfers hail from, but that the 6-foot-6 wing will help OSU offensively as well. He averaged 20.1 points and 7.1 boards last season on an NCAA Tournament Wright State team.

There's no doubt that what ends up happening in this upcoming Ohio State season carries a lot of variance, but that's to be expected with the amount of roster change over the summer. During a time when transfers own so much recruiting real estate, Ohio State's staff is loading up on high schoolers and betting on forming roster continuity while developing players.

"We want to go where we haven't gotten yet," said Holtmann. "I know we have certain things to figure out, but I believe this team has the highest ceiling of any group we've had in my five years here and that we can keep growing on this in the coming seasons.

"Everything you want as a college coach, you can accomplish here in Columbus."

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for AP Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter'@John_Fanta.

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