No. 17 Ohio State will take the first step toward putting last season’s disappointing end behind it Tuesday when it hosts in-state rival Akron at the Schottenstein Center.
After a tremendous 2020-21 regular season and Big Ten Tournament run to the conference championship — where the Buckeyes fell to Illinois in overtime — Ohio State saw its season cut short in heartbreaking fashion, falling to Oral Roberts and becoming the ninth No. 2 seed to fall to a No. 15 seed in NCAA Tournament history.
“There were some really, really good moments from last season. But you always want to own the positive moments, as well as the really, really disappointing moments. I think that’s part of your story,” head coach Chris Holtmann said. “We’ve always talked about owning that and finding a way to learn from it and move forward and grow.”
The Buckeyes kick off their redemption tour against the Zips, which has seen steady growth under fifth-year head coach John Groce — who was Holtmann’s teammate at Taylor University.
Following their college-playing careers, Holtmann was on Groce’s staff at Ohio University from 2008-10 and was Groce’s first hire when he took over the Bobcat program.
“I obviously have a personal and close relationship with John. He’s a dear, dear friend. Our families are close. We went to college together and he gave me an opportunity when I was a younger, low-major assistant,” Holtmann said. “He’s done a great job with that Akron program.”
After a 14-18 season in 2017-18, Groce’s first season at the helm of the program, the Zips have turned in three-consecutive winning seasons — including back-to-back single-digit loss seasons in the last two years. Groce’s greatest achievement with Akron came in the 2019-20 season, in which he led the Zips to the regular season Mid-American Conference title with a 24-7 record.
With Groce’s quick turnaround since taking over, Holtmann said it’s imperative that the Buckeyes are challenged early in the season, with a difficult conference slate looming over the team.
“You don’t ever want to play scared or schedule scared,” Holtmann said. “I think as much as anything, you want to put challenges in front of your guys.”
A new era begins in Akron this season with the departure of former guard Loren Cristian Jackson, who averaged 18.2 points and 4.4 assists per game over three seasons with the Zips.
Groce looks to fill Cristian Jackson’s production with a revolving door of veteran guards, most notably redshirt junior guard Bryan Trimble Jr.
Trimble averaged 12 points per game on 39.5 percent shooting, including a 39.8 percent mark from three, in 2020-21.
Graduate transfer guard K.J. Walton is also primed to make an impact for the Akron backcourt, putting up a team-high 13 points in the Zips’ exhibition against West Virginia Oct. 29. Walton averaged 16.4 points on 54.3 percent shooting for Ball State University in 2020-21.
Tasked with slowing the Akron backcourt is graduate transfer guard Jamari Wheeler, who said the Buckeyes will need to outwork the Zips for the entire 40 minutes.
“They’re really a good team, talented and athletic,” Wheeler said. “Going into the game, we just need to make sure we do what we do, control the things that we can control and we’ll like the outcome at the end.”
The Zips attack with aggression in the frontcourt, led by the pair of junior forwards Ali Ali and Enrique Freeman.
Freeman produced 7.9 points and a team-high 9.2 rebounds per game. The Cleveland native was incredibly efficient with his touches, shooting 74 percent from the field. He also led the MAC in blocks with 1.9 per game.
Ali showed major strides in 2020-21, dropping 7.2 points per game on 44.4 percent from the field.
With attention to Akron’s aggressive frontcourt attack, Holtmann said the Buckeyes will need to match its energy.
“There’s a level of physicality and aggression that Akron plays with that’s really impressive,” Holtmann said. “For us, that’s the first order. We’ll need to be ready for that.”
Entering the season opener, Ohio State is dealing with nagging injuries to its front court. Graduate forward Seth Towns is the only Buckeye confirmed to miss the game against the Zips as he rehabs from an offseason back injury.
Holtmann said graduate forward Kyle Young will be a game-time decision, while redshirt senior forward Justice Sueing will likely be available for Ohio State.
As the Buckeyes head into their 123rd season as a program, Holtmann emphasized that he sees potential in his squad this year.
“When healthy, I really love the potential of this group. 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 need to be battle tested. We need to see how we respond to adversity and tough moments.”