Need for more veteran leadership remains critical as Ohio State heads to Michigan

The concerns were there when this Ohio State men's basketball team was assembled. On a roster with seven new faces among a nine-man rotation, leadership was quickly identified as a potential Achilles' heel from the moment the 2022-23 Buckeyes arrived on campus.

Ups and downs were expected, as were plenty of on-the-fly lessons. In order to navigate them, the Buckeyes would need some of their most experienced players – even if they were new to the program – to be able to help steer the ship through turbulence and eventually find a clear path to the NCAA Tournament.

With nine Big Ten regular-season games remaining and a showdown with rival Michigan on Sunday, they’re still waiting for that to materialize. A constant talking point during this stretch of eight losses in nine games, coach Chris Holtmann was asked about the leadership from his veterans following Thursday’s home loss to Wisconsin.

“We need more,” he said. “We all need to do better. We need more.”

The problem is that, at this point of the season, it’s getting harder to imagine that materializing. Captains Justice Sueing, Isaac Likekele and Zed Key are in their sixth, fifth and third years of college basketball, respectively. Sueing’s struggles have deepened as the season has progressed, leading to his eventual removal from the starting lineup, while the other two have missed time due to either personal reasons (Likekele) or injury (Key) and have not been able to muster consistent contributions since their returns.

During the first half against Wisconsin, Ohio State turned the ball over on four straight possessions and six times in the span of 4½ minutes. Those turnovers came from players in at least their third years of Division I college basketball. Sueing had two and Key, Likekele, Tanner Holden (fourth year) and Sean McNeil (fourth year) each had one.

It’s difficult to lead while also personally struggling on the court. While the Buckeyes miss the statistical contributions of a player like E.J. Liddell, last year’s leading scorer, they also miss his leadership in the locker room that was backed up by those numbers in games.

“The good ones find a way,” Holtmann said. “It helps if your best players are your best leaders. That was certainly the case with him. His voice was consistent, his approach was consistent every day but he also had help with that. He had some older guys with Kyle (Young) and Justin (Ahrens) and other guys who were helping.”

Holtmann’s desire to find more leadership on this team has led to freshman Bruce Thornton being asked to join meetings with the captains and coaching staff. The coach has described him as an “everyday” player, one who has dealt with fatigue and injury but has also remained dogged in his approach to practice.

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His inclusion in those meetings has come while his production has continued to slump downward. Against the Badgers, Likekele pointed out that the Buckeyes had seven turnovers from their primary point guards – two from Thornton and five from himself, two in the final minutes as the Buckeyes attempted to claw back from an 18-point deficit.

“Two turnovers in the last two minutes by me, that’s tough,” Likekele said. “You can’t win games like that. That’s not an X’s and O’s thing or a coaches’ thing, that’s a player’s thing. After they teach us to play off of two feet in the lane all the time, I play off one and I pass it and it’s a turnover. It’s stuff like that that’s on us as players and we’ve got to correct it. I’ve got to correct it.”

Holtmann apologized after the game for earning two technical fouls during the final minute of the first half and being ejected for the second time in his Ohio State tenure. With the team searching for more leadership from its veterans, the coach said he, too, needs to have better composure and handle such situations with more poise.

After spending the past five seasons as the head coach at Miami (Ohio), Jack Owens is in his first year as an assistant coach at Ohio State. Prior to taking over for the Redhawks, Owens spent nine years as an assistant for Matt Painter at Purdue. To him, leaders at this time of the season need to be “everyday guys through the good, the bad, the ugly. Through adversity. You need someone with a voice that’s gonna continue to lead the team and echo the things the coaches are saying.”

Key, Sueing and Likekele have all publicly accepted blame for not having the team properly prepared for games or for a collective lack of urgency that has spelled doom during the last five weeks. Owens said Key and Sueing are still being pushed out of their comfort zones while trying to be team leaders.

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“They’ve been here,” he said. “They’ve been around the program. They know what’s expected. At the same time, it’s probably something they’re not accustomed to doing, but it’s required, especially with the new faces we have.”

And more will be required if Ohio State is to salvage what remains of this season. From everyone.


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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: As Michigan looms, Ohio State again asks for more leadership from vets