Bruce Thornton, Felix Okpara

Chris Holtmann is “Going to Count On” Top Four Freshmen to Play Significant Roles: “There’s Certainly Some Anxiety But It’s Certainly Some Excitement, Too”

Ohio State’s freshman class won’t have the luxury of easing into things as it transitions to the level of play in college basketball.

Given that 11 players from last year’s Buckeye roster have departed from the program, Ohio State’s six total freshmen – five scholarship recruits and one walk-on – make up nearly half of the 2022-23 team. At the program’s media day last month, Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann made no effort to hide how important the play of several of his first-year Buckeyes will be this season, and he named four in particular.

Roddy Gayle, Bruce Thornton, Brice Sensabaugh and Felix Okpara – all four-star prospects and top-65 overall recruits in this year’s class – won’t just get opportunities in garbage time this season. Holtmann will rely on all of them to contribute on a nightly basis for the Buckeyes.

“I think we have four freshmen that are all going to play. They’re all going to play a role in this group, for sure. Bruce, Roddy, Brice and Felix are all capable of helping this team and playing,” Holtmann said. “They’ll go through some ups and downs, they’ll have some challenges, but all four are gonna play. You’re gonna see them a part of every game, for sure. And we’re excited about that. We’re excited about the potential of that group, for sure.”

Last season, Holtmann had nine seniors in another unique makeup roster. This year, the challenge is blending together a group that includes 10 new faces in total, with more than half of those being first-year Buckeyes. In fact, with Kalen Etzler redshirting a year ago, the Buckeyes technically have seven freshmen on the roster.

But as far as first-year players, Holtmann’s never had to lean on as many as he will this year.

“I’ve not coached a team that’s probably counted on four freshmen as much as this group is going to. And again, there’s some real positives to that,” Holtmann said at Big Ten Media Days Wednesday. “And, you know, what can we grow into? If we encounter some bumps along the way, what can we grow into? But I think there’s a mixture of feelings. There’s certainly some anxiety but it’s certainly some excitement, too.”

In a sport that has become increasingly guard-centric in recent years, Holtmann said the play of Gayle and Thornton – the No. 46 and No. 47 overall prospects in the country – will be central to the success Ohio State is able to achieve.

“I think that will be as key as anything to our season this year, is not just the development of our four freshmen but the development of those two young guards (Thornton and Gayle) and the growth that they take,” Holtmann said. “We know how important guard and wing play is in college basketball, and certainly in the NCAA tournament, the versatility that provides.”

The most highly-ranked Buckeye freshman, per the 247Sports composite rankings, Gayle received plenty of praise from Holtmann in Minneapolis when Holtmann was asked what Gayle’s role for the team will be this season. In fact, Holtmann said Gayle’s ceiling might be the highest of the entire haul, which ranked No. 8 in the country as Holtmann’s best class to date as the Buckeyes’ head coach.

“we know there’s going to be moments that are going to be head-scratching, with just the general inexperience those four are going to have. But if we can play them through that earlier in the year, we’re excited about what it can be.”– Chris Holtman

“He’s gonna be really important. He’s 6-4, he’s strong, he’s physical. I’m excited about Roddy. I think he has as much upside and potential as anyone in that four-man class,” Holtmann said. “And he also has glimpses in practice where you look at him and be like, ‘OK, with continued growth, (he could excel).’ He’s not there yet. But he’ll play the two, the other wing spot some, could slide to the point some. But he’s gonna provide us a versatile defender and he’s a really good athlete at 6-4, 210, 205.”

For a long time, Thornton was thought to be the crown jewel of the class, and he still might end up with that title. Physically prepared for the step up to the next level like few – if any –freshmen Holtmann has ever seen at the point guard position, Thornton seems likely to end up a day one starter for the Buckeyes.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen a point guard as ready as he is. You see that with younger guys or with point guards, with smaller kids. But he came from a great program, he’s extremely well-coached,” Holtmann said. “He’s got really good clothes right now. He used to win. And because of that, I think Bruce is going to be able to help us right away as much as any freshmen we’ve coached.”

Okpara, a 6-foot-11 center and the No. 62 prospect in his class, isn’t a polished product on offense just yet. On defense, though, murmurs about the Nigeria native’s defensive prowess began surfacing soon after he arrived on campus this summer.

At the Buckeyes’ open practice on Monday, media members got to see that first hand, as Okpara blocked shots on two of the first three defensive possessions for his team once scrimmage play began.

“There’s gonna be moments where you look at it, and you’re like, ‘Whoa, that is impressive.’ There have been moments for us as coaches, we’ve been doing this 25 years, where we’ve said, ‘Wow.’ We haven’t really had a center that’s been able to make those athletic plays,” Holtmann said. “So it’s exciting. It’s really exciting. But there’s also moments where he’s going to struggle to finish in traffic, he’s going to get bumped off a spot and he’s not going to be able to grab a ball because physically he’s not there yet. There’s those things as well.”

As much as Holtmann expects out of his freshman class, he stopped short of comparing the emergence of any single one of them to that of Malaki Branham – the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2021-22 who was drafted in the first round after just one season in Columbus.

Of course, at the start of his college career, Branham himself wasn’t pegged to have the immediate success he ended up enjoying at Ohio State. For that reason, Holtmann isn’t likely to draw any comparisons with the former scarlet and gray star until his new freshmen prove capable of such a standard on a regular basis.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the development of really all four of our freshmen that are going to play is going to be critical to this team. Just the growth that those guys experience,” Holtmann said. “I was asked the other day, do I see those guys developing at the rate that Malaki developed? That’s a hard ask to put on guys. I think they have to run their own race. But we certainly are going to need important play from those two guys (Thornton and Gayle) as well as all four of our freshmen this year.”

Amid the flashes of brilliance, Holtmann’s seen inconsistent play from his freshman class during the preseason. He anticipates seeing that carry over once the season officially begins next month as well. But with a group that carries as much promise that Holtmann’s top-rated recruiting class does, patience might pay off in the end.

“It’s not just that they’re young guys. They’re young guys that we’re going to count on to play,” Holtmann said. “So I think speeding up their development, we were just talking about it in film, there are things that probably we can’t see right now that are going to happen in games. And we’re going to scratch our heads and say, ‘Where did that come from?’ Well, that’s inexperience. And you try to project and get ahead and see as much as you can some of the things that are going to come up.

“But we know there’s going to be moments that are going to be head-scratching, with just the general inexperience those four are going to have. But if we can play them through that earlier in the year, we’re excited about what it can be.”

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