Ohio State will open the season by hosting Akron on Tuesday, but the No. 17 Buckeyes can’t be faulted for looking down the road to the NCAA Tournament.
It was there in March that their dreams were shattered by Oral Roberts as the No. 15 seed stunned the second-seeded Buckeyes 75-72 in overtime in the South Regional.
With that abrupt ending, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann spent the offseason retooling, finding a replacement for guard Duane Washington Jr., who left after his junior season for the NBA draft. The main ingredient for the Buckeyes in replacing Washington was bringing in graduate transfer Cedric Russell from Louisiana.
Russell, a three-year starter, led his team with 17.2 points per game and hit 40.0 percent of his 3-point tries last season.
But Holtmann also added graduate transfer guard Jamari Wheeler from Penn State. With the Nittany Lions, he was a two-time All-Big Ten defensive team selection.
“We need more balance within our offensive and defensive numbers,” Holtmann said. “If you can be Top 25 in efficiency in both, as we’ve been some years, you really have a chance.
“I think as much as anything, you want a group that believes in the importance of defense, and I think last year at times we didn’t embrace that enough as a group. That was probably the biggest issue. Ultimately, that’s on me. I just think we have to take another step.”
Holtmann is happy that junior forward E.J. Liddell decided to return to the Buckeyes (21-10, 12-8 Big Ten last season) after he considered entering the NBA draft.
Liddell is on numerous preseason All-America lists after averaging 16.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists last season. He’s expected to move farther from the basket after spending the offseason working on his outside game.
“He’s one of the best players in the country,” Holtmann said. “I really believe that. What he can’t do is lose sight of what has made him one of the best players in the country while at the same time continuing to grow and evolve parts of his game.”
Akron, picked for fifth in the Mid-American Conference preseason coaches’ poll, has made changes of its own.
Senior point guard Loren Cristian Jackson could have returned for an extra season under the NCAA’s COVID-19 mandate but elected to try the professional route, so coach John Groce must find a way to replace his team-leading 22.3 points per game.
Fortunately for the Zips, they also benefited from the transfer portal with the addition of graduate transfer guard K.J. Walton, who led Ball State in scoring (16.4) and rebounding (5.9) in 2020-21.
He was named to the preseason All-MAC second team.
Akron returns eight players from last season’s team that was 15-8 overall and 12-6 in the conference, including junior shooting Bryan Trimble and sophomore forward Enrique Freeman.
“We were going to dial in here on everybody’s role,” Groce said. “I’ve always felt great teams, great organizations, great families, businesses, everybody knows their role. They embrace their role, and they play their role like an NBA All-Star.”
–Field Level Media