COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Ohio State begins its 2021-22 men’s basketball season ranked as the No. 17 team in the country — fourth-highest in the Big Ten.

The Buckeyes are eager to get started after last season ended in a shocking loss to Oral Roberts in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Ohio State’s 2021-22 team features nine players who are either seniors or graduates after the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to all student-athletes due to the pandemic.

“There will never be a time when we have a roster like the one we have right now,” coach Chris Holtmann said.

The Buckeyes roster does look a little different, most notably with the departure of point guard CJ Walker and guard Duane Washington Jr., who signed a two-way contract with the Indiana Pacers.

Key returners

But Ohio State returns several key players, including forwards Kyle Young, E.J. Liddell and Justice Sueing.

Holtmann recently announced Young is out indefinitely as he deals with vestibular dysfunction, a balance disorder.

To make matters worse, Sueing is also out because of a lower leg injury, which affected him toward the end of last season. There’s no timetable for his return.

“He’s had some really good practices and some good moments, but it’s bothered him a little bit. It’s lingered here a little bit,” Holtmann said. “I think for us it made sense for us to sit him [during Monday’s exhibition game] and get him rehabbed.”

Sueing proved to be one of the Buckeyes’ top defenders and rebounders last season, ranking second in total rebounds and first in steals. This season, he’ll be asked to do more on offense after averaging 10.7 points and 3.5 field goals — both third-highest on the team.

Young and Sueing will be vital for the Buckeyes but no player is more important to OSU than Liddell.

Holtmann said Liddell will play most of the season at the No. 4 power forward position rather than center, where he played most of last season. Stepping into the big man role will be a combination of Indiana transfer Joey Brunk and Zed Key, who had an impressive freshman season.

The Buckeyes also brought in some talented players from recruiting and the transfer portal.

New Buckeyes

  • Jamari Wheeler (Penn State transfer, grad)
  • Joey Brunk (Indiana transfer, grad)
  • Cedric Russell (Louisiana transfer, grad)
  • Malaki Branham (Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, true freshman)
  • Kalen Etzler (Crestview, true freshman)

Holtmann said Etzler will redshirt this season and Branham, who was named 2021 Ohio Mr. Basketball, has been making strides during the offseason.

Breakout Buckeyes?

There are few other returners from last year’s team who could have a breakout season starting with Key.

There’s no denying he makes a difference with high-energy defense. But Key, who is 6 feet 8, is undersized compared with other Big Ten big men, including Illinois center Kofi Cockburn, Michigan center Hunter Dickinson and Purdue center Zach Edey who all stand above 7 feet or taller.

Holtmann acknowledged the Buckeyes will probably be too small in some matchups if Key and Liddell play at the same time, meaning more minutes for the 6-11 Joey Brunk.

The Buckeyes will also be bolstered by the return of Meechie Johnson, Justin Ahrens and Seth Towns.

Johnson will split minutes at point guard with Penn State transfer Jamari Wheeler, but it remains to be seen who will get the lion’s share of playing time.

Towns, who graduated from Harvard before transferring to OSU, has been riddled with injuries throughout his career.

The Northland High School graduate missed the 2018-19 season after suffering a severe knee injury and sat out the 2019-20 season to recover. He played in 25 games last season, averaging 10 minutes a game, but dealt with a nagging back injury throughout his first season back home.

Towns is still dealing with that injury and is not expected to return until December, according to Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports.

Finally, Ahrens returns as the Buckeyes’ leading three-point specialist with the departure of Washington. Ahrens will be asked, and expected, to take more three-pointers and and make more of them. He averaged 1.7 threes a game but only played 18 minutes a game, so the opportunity will be there for him to step up in that role.

Ohio State’s season begins Tuesday at home against Akron. The Buckeyes’ nonconference schedule is highlighted by a game at Xavier on Nov. 18, a home game vs. Duke on Nov. 30 and a neutral-site game vs. Kentucky on Dec. 18 in Las Vegas.