COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — The Ohio State men’s basketball team found its rhythm at the end of the 2022-23 season but it came just a little too late.
The Buckeyes’ improbable Big Ten Tournament run ended Saturday when they lost to Purdue in the semifinals after wins over Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State. The defeat more than likely keeps the Buckeyes out of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2016-17 season.
This is Ohio State’s (16-19) first losing season since 2003-04, which was the last year for coach Jim O’Brien.
OSU’s campaign began with plenty of questions and excitement. Coach Chris Holtmann had to figure out how to replace Malaki Branham and E.J. Liddell, get four freshman ready for Division I basketball and integrate three transfers on a team that only returned three players from the year before.
But the Buckeyes never figured out how to do that consistently, losing 14 of 15 games from January 5 through February 23.
It looked like Ohio State was on its way to finding the right lineup and chemistry after close early season losses to preseason No. 1 North Carolina and current No. 21 Duke.
Buckeyes start to decline
The Buckeyes were also right there against No. 1 Purdue at home on January 5, losing 71-69 on a last-second shot during a game in which center Zed Key injured his shoulder and never fully recovered. He wound up sitting out the final eight games to undergo surgery.
Losing Key was the start of the fall for the Buckeyes. Ohio State boasted the nation’s No. 1 ranked offense entering its road game against Maryland on January 8. But what followed was a team that would only score above 70 points twice in its next 11 games. The Buckeyes lost 10 of those 11 games.
“Our two-point field goal percentage has not been good,” Holtmann said after OSU scored a season-low 41 points in a home loss to Michigan State on February 12. “That’s been a foundational piece for our highly efficient offenses the last couple years.”
Holtmann acknowledged before the season began there would be growing pains, especially trying to incorporate four freshman in the lineup. Ohio State didn’t outgrow those pains until the last four games of the regular season when they shot better than 50% from inside the arc.
“The most effective reason has been our movement and our ball movement and us trusting the pass more,” Holtmann said. “We have played really, really good offensive basketball this last stretch. We’ve moved it, and we’ve also made some shots.”
Can’t close out games
A big part of Ohio State’s 2023 losing streaks was an inability to play well in the final minutes. From January 5 through January 18, Ohio State had five single-digit losses. That had never happened before in OSU basketball history. Turnovers, lack of ball movement and mistakes on defense all played a role in the Buckeyes losing eight games this season by two possessions or less.
Freshmen make strides
Ohio State has a solid nucleus of talented freshman who could become great together if they all stay in Columbus. That starts with bona fide scorer Brice Sensabaugh who averaged 16.3 points this season and played his best offense down the stretch, according to Holtmann. But OSU missed his presence in the quarterfinals and semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament with a knee injury.
“He’s played his best offensive basketball [the last few games] when you consider defenses adjusting to him,” Holtmann said before the tournament. “We had to maybe help him respond the right way during that [losing] stretch. Now, he’s just trusting things more and has made some really good reads.”
The loss of Zed Key can’t be overstated. He averaged a career high 13.2 points and was shooting 65.5% from the field before his injury. But the one silver lining was Key’s replacement — freshman Felix Okpara. It took time for the Lagos, Nigeria native to develop and learn how to stay out of foul trouble, but by the final few games, he showed flashes of what it takes to be a standout big man in the Big Ten.
“We’re going to play those two guys [Key and Okpara] together next year. We’re going to play bigger at times. I think what we’ve seen with Felix is he’s just scratching the surface,” Holtmann said, adding Okpara needs to improve at defending ball screens, protecting the rim and perfecting his touch on offense.
Freshman point guard Bruce Thornton blossomed late in the season. He averaged 8.8 points in OSU’s first 27 games but contributed 16.4 points a game in OSU’s final eight outings. A backcourt that includes Sensabaugh and Thornton will cause Big Ten teams fits next year if both players decide to stay.
“[Bruce] had some struggles there in the middle but we always thought he could shoot it,” Holtmann said. “Now, what I think he’s got to add is the ability to catch and shoot. We tell our guys, and I’ve stole this, the most open you’ll be is on the catch and he’s done a better job of being ready on the catch to shoot it. I think he’s read close outs better.”
Another freshman contributor who is capable of making a big leap from year one to year two is shooting guard Roddy Gayle Jr. The Niagara Falls, New York native averaged 16.3 minutes and played in a rotation that sometimes included four freshman at a time. The defensive specialist proved to be an offensive weapon for the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Tournament, contributing clutch shots against Iowa and Michigan State while having an exceptional 16-point half against Purdue. Gayle Jr. showed he’s deserving of a bigger role as long as his game continues to develop this offseason.
Chris Holtmann was signed to a three-year contract extension this past offseason keeping him in Columbus through the 2027-28 season. Firing him this offseason would cost the university $20 million and be a stark contrast from the confidence athletic director Gene Smith has showed so far during Holtmann’s time in Columbus.
It’s unclear whether the Buckeyes will be invited to, or accept, an invitation to the National Invitation Tournament. But what is known is that this was Holtmann’s first losing season at Ohio State after five-straight years of winning 20-plus games, a feat only three other college programs accomplished. Smith and the Buckeyes brass will likely give Holtmann a chance to prove this season was just a blip on the radar.