Basketball Preview: Ohio State Opens 2021-22 Season With In-State Tilt Against Akron


Chris Holtmann branded it the stiffest season-opening challenge of his Ohio State tenure.

Despite beginning two of the past three seasons against AAC champion Cincinnati teams, the Buckeye head coach called Tuesday’s meeting with Akron – which has lost eight or fewer games in each of the past two years – “the toughest home opener we’ve had in our four-plus years.”

WHO WHERE WHEN TV
AKRON SCHOTTENSTEIN CENTER 6 P.M. ESPN2

Holtmann will go toe-to-toe with former Taylor University teammate John Groce, the fifth-year Akron head coach who made Holtmann his lead assistant at Ohio from 2008-10, and the Zips are just two years removed from a regular season conference title and potential NCAA tournament berth during the COVID-shortened 2019-20 campaign.

“These are difficult games; they sound good when you schedule them, but not as good when you look at the quality of team that they are,” Holtmann said Monday. “And he’s done a great job with that Akron program. It’s been a great program for a number of years, but he’s done a great job. They won 24 games, they won the MAC two years ago during the COVID, I think the tournament got taken away from them. Played a top-10 Louisville team early in the season to a two-possession game.”

The Buckeyes will play their first official game in front of home fans since March 5, 2020, and their first game in general since suffering an opening-round upset loss to No. 15 seed Oral Roberts in overtime during the NCAA tournament this past March.

E.J. Liddell returns as one of the frontrunners for Big Ten Player of the Year, following a sophomore season in which the Illinois native was named first-team all-conference by the Big Ten coaches. However, he will no longer have the prolific perimeter scoring of Duane Washington to complement him on the outside.

Despite the collective experience of the Ohio State roster, which features eight scholarship seniors and six players who have already earned undergraduate degrees, there are plenty of unknowns surrounding how the team will mesh together. The Buckeyes have three new grad transfers – Joey Brunk, Cedric Russell and Jamari Wheeler – and a slew of underclassmen vying for significant roles on the floor.

Ohio State begins the season ranked 17th in the AP poll, down 10 spots from where it entered last year’s NCAA tournament, but the first step toward improving its standing will be avoiding an opening game stumble against a tough Akron team.

Three Things To Watch

Injury issues

The Ohio State roster will not quite be at full strength in the season opener, and may not be for some time at the start of 2021-22. Senior captains Justice Sueing and Kyle Young are both banged-up, with the former suffering from a lower-leg injury he’s been dealing with since late last season, and the latter having been diagnosed with a vestibular dysfunction last month.

Sueing is expected to be available Tuesday, despite not playing in last week’s exhibition, and Young will be a game-time decision. Holtmann said Monday that Young's availability is more in doubt than Sueing’s.

Sixth-year senior forward Seth Towns will be out for Ohio State as well, as the former Ivy League Player of the Year underwent a procedure on a herniated disc in his back in September, with the recovery process expected to delay his 2021-22 debut to a December date.

“I really love the potential of this group, when healthy. I think we have a lot of guys that can add a lot of things, and we have a quality and a depth to us when we’re completely healthy,” Holtmann said. “We’re just not there at this point.”

Who emerges as go-to perimeter scorer?

The aforementioned loss of Washington from the Buckeye roster means Ohio State is tasked with replacing the 2020-21 team’s leading scorer, and a player that often bailed the Buckeyes out with tough outside shots and a high volume of threes.

Who fills that void is still yet to be determined, but there is certainly more than one candidate as far as perimeter scoring options go for Ohio State. Meechie Johnson Jr., still a freshman despite playing in 17 games last season, showed the type of offensive aggression in last week’s exhibition that could make him a natural choice to be a go-to scorer.

Long, versatile wings like Malaki Branham and Eugene Brown also showed promise with double-digit scoring performances against Indianapolis, and it may take awhile for Ohio State’s young scoring guards to establish a true pecking order among themselves early on in the season.

A touching tribute

Longtime Taylor head coach Paul Patterson, a mentor to both Holtmann and Groce, died at age 78 in September, and the Ohio State and Akron coaches will honor him at Tuesday’s game.

A Hall of Famer whose life was as significant as it was successful. I will miss you every day.

Love you Coach. Rest In Peace. pic.twitter.com/a00ZKJ5hRE

— Chris Holtmann (@ChrisHoltmann) September 22, 2021

“I think what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna do something upstairs, because we have some alumni from Taylor coming up. That way it doesn’t impact the actual pace of the game,” Holtmann said. “Both John and I will be wearing Alzheimer's pins. Coach struggled with Alzheimer's the last 18 months of his life, two years to 18 months. Many of us in here, I'm sure, have been impacted by that. So we’re gonna do some things along those lines, hopefully bring more awareness, more opportunity to give to that organization.”

Three Important Buckeyes

Justice Sueing

Sueing, the Buckeyes’ third-leading scorer last season, figures to be a vital cog for Ohio State in his fifth year, and that is further evidenced by the fact that he was given captain status despite transferring into the program from California a couple years ago. But even if Sueing plays on Tuesday, Holtmann said he may not be the best version of himself as he works through his ongoing injury.

“We’re not gonna see the real Justice, I don’t think, right away. And it’s probably unfair to just expect that from him,” Holtmann said. “He’s had too many times where he just hasn't been able to kind of practice like he needs to. I think he’ll get there eventually, but he needs to see some game action, and we need him to be ready. Obviously we need him for Akron.”

Exactly what Sueing will be able to do – and how many minutes he plays – in spite of his issue will be something to keep an eye on.

E.J. Liddell

The Buckeyes’ star forward is expected to transition out to a more perimeter-based style of play from time to time this season, following the feedback he received from NBA scouts over the summer, but the absence of Young may not allow him to stray too far from the inside. Either way, Liddell’s sluggish start to last week’s exhibition led Holtmann to ask for more effort from the versatile frontcourt player moving forward.

“I did not think he played with the motor he needs to play with consistently to be one of the best players in the country,” Holtmann said. “So that’s my challenge to him.”

On Tuesday, we’ll see if Liddell responds to that challenge.

Malaki Branham

When asked Monday to name one player Buckeye fans should be looking out for in Tuesday’s game, Branham was the first name that came to second-year forward Zed Key’s mind. The 6-foot-5 freshman and No. 37 overall recruit has already shown flashes of a bright future, but his teammates believe he could step in and make an impact right off the bat.

“No. 1, I would say is Malaki. Malaki is gonna surprise a lot of people,” Key said. “Just his athleticism, he’s diverse, he can shoot the ball, he drive the basketball, he can make moves off the dribble.”

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
Player Position Stats (2020-21)
XAVIER CASTANEDA G 8.5 PPG, 2.6 APG (SOUTH FLORIDA)
BRYAN TRIMBLE G 12.0 PPG, 2.1 RPG
K.J. WALTON G 16.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG (BALL STATE)
ALI ALI F 7.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG
ENRIQUE FREEMAN F 7.9 PPG, 9.2 RPG

Akron no longer has 2020-21 leading scorer Loren Jackson – who averaged 22.3 points per game last season – on the roster, but Bryan Trimble was the second-biggest scoring threat at 12 points a night. Now a senior in the Zips’ backcourt, Trimble could see his offensive role increase, and the Missouri native was already more than happy to get shots up last season. Trimble averaged 8.1 attempts from three-point range per game last year, and knocked down just under 40 percent of them.

K.J. Walton

Aside from Trimble, Akron's primary replacement for Jackson's scoring load is likely to be seventh-year transfer senior K.J. Walton, a 6-foot-3 guard who has previously played two seasons at Missouri and four at Ball State. Last year, Walton averaged 16.4 points per game on 54.3 percent shooting for the Cardinals, and figures to provide an immediate offensive boost for the Akron in his first year with the program.

Enrique Freeman

Despite averaging just 22.3 minutes per game as a sophomore, Cleveland’s Enrique Freeman led the team with 9.2 rebounds and was third on the Akron roster with 7.9 points per game. The 6-foot-7 forward did all his damage inside the three-point line a year ago, and he shot a staggering 74 percent from the field from two-point range. With an average of 1.9 blocks per game to boot, Freeman was a member of the MAC's All-Defensive team last year. 

How It Plays Out

Line: Ohio State -16.5, O/U 145.5

Despite Holtmann’s assertions that the Zips have the ability to get a win over the Buckeyes in the season opener, they probably shouldn’t, unless something goes very wrong for Ohio State. The Buckeyes rank eighth in KenPom’s preseason adjusted efficiency ratings, while Akron sits at No. 140. On talent alone, the Buckeyes should get the job done by a relatively wide margin.

Prediction: Ohio State 80, Akron 62