Ohio State’s four freshmen, comprising the No. 14 recruiting class in the nation, were the steam that powered the Buckeye hype engine ahead of this season.
Each began Wednesday’s exhibition game against Cedarville on the bench, but all had a moment to shine, and none more than freshman guard DJ Carton.
“What I was pleased with is our four freshmen really did try to play the way we’ve coached our group to play, and that’s really important,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said.
The Buckeyes were the fourth-worst scoring team in the Big Ten’s regular season a year ago, and getting out to run in transition was not a pillar of their offense.
Carton showed why that’s likely to change this year, with a stretch in the second half that saw him hit five of Ohio State’s six made shots in a three-minute span –– three of them being fast break dunks.
Catching the Yellow Jacket defense off guard with breakaway speed, Carton jammed home a left-handed dunk that ignited a mostly dormant Columbus crowd, but that was just the warmup.
Two minutes later, Carton stole the ball from the Cedarville point guard to streak to the hoop for an uncontested slam, and in 13 more seconds, he’d thrown down what he called his favorite dunk of the night on an alley-oop from freshman forward E.J. Liddell.
“I remember me and DJ were playing open gym one time, and I didn’t throw him the lob, and he was like, ‘You can throw it to me,’ and I was like, ‘Alright. I got you next time,’” Liddell said. “And that was the perfect situation.”
Carton’s run helped blow the lid off a game in which Cedarville had started to crawl back, and the point guard finished with a team second-best 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Carton also hit his only attempt at a 3, and led the team with five assists –– one to junior forward Kaleb Wesson for a dunk.
The Iowa native played the most minutes of the freshman with 19, two more than redshirt junior guard CJ Walker, who started over Carton at point guard in the game.
“Every time I get the ball, I’m gonna push it, just because I know that’s one of my strengths and I know, like tonight, sometimes the defense wasn’t set and I know we can get easy buckets like that,” Carton said.
Liddell entered the game at the same time as Carton, around five minutes into the first half, and had the next most impressive showing of the bunch.
Besides his highlight assist to Carton, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound forward put up nine points on 3-of-6 shooting in 15 minutes.
Not just a physical presence down low, Liddell displayed range on his two shots from the outside, drilling a free-throw line jumper and quick turnaround attempt in the second half.
Six-foot-9 forward Alonzo Gaffney called it a “dream come true” to step on the court for the team he grew up rooting for, and in the second half, he threw down a dunk that announced his presence at Ohio State.
Holtmann said the combination of Liddell’s size and Gaffney’s length makes them an alluring pair to play together, but said Gaffney has a lot of room to grow defensively.
“The question there is, ‘How are we gonna be defensively with those guys early on at the four and five?’” Holtmann said. “Because right now, we’re not good enough playing two freshmen heavy minutes there at those two important spots.”
It wasn’t a great sign when 6-foot-11 center Ibrahima Diallo’s first shot attempt of the game was a try at a dunk that he had rejected by the rim, but he turned his night around by scoring all seven of his points in the final 5:26 of the game.
It’s still unclear just how big of a role the four will have for the Buckeyes once more serious opposition rolls around, but like Holtmann emphasized in the preseason, Liddell said the impact of experienced leaders will need to trickle down.
“It’s high expectations for all of us, and coach said we could be a really great team if we all buy in and just learn off the older guys,” Liddell said.