Maui Invitational offers Ohio State basketball’s first real test

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LAHAINA, Hawaii — A coach who compliments his next opponent is often not very special. With that in mind, some positive words from Texas Tech’s Mark Adams about the state of San Diego during Sunday morning’s Maui Invitational preview press conference might seem like little more than window dressing.

The Aztecs “may have the best defenses I’ve seen in a long time,” Adams said.

The twist is that the Adams Red Raiders will open tournament play with Creighton, not San Diego State. That task falls to Ohio State, which is expected to see a significant increase in the level of competition after three wins against teams from the lower majors to open the season.

The Buckeyes go into Monday’s game with the third-worst nonconference strength on the schedule rankings, according to KenPom.com. A top-20 team, the Aztecs will present the first of what may be three actual Tests for Ohio State in Maui.

“This is definitely a step forward in the competition,” said Holtmann after attending a press conference with all eight coaches at this year’s event. “I think they are one of the top 10, 15 teams in the country right now. They could beat anyone any night. They are amazing. You are physical. This is an elite competition that we play.”

How the state of Ohio will deal with it is anyone’s guess. The Buckeyes are relying on seven players new to the program (four freshmen and three transfers) to fill the primary rotational roles in a revised roster, and so far it’s been a mostly smooth transition.

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Freshman Brice Sensabaugh is the first freshman to open his career with three double-digit goals since Jared Sullinger in 2010-11, and he leads the team with 17.0 points per game. Third-year center Zed Key averages a double-double with 13.3 points and a best 12.3 rebounds per game. Overall, Ohio State ranks 30th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 41st in adjusted defensive efficiency.

It all points to a balanced team, one built on versatility that the Buckeyes will hopefully help overcome a perceived lack of real star power. Now they have their first chance to separate reality from illusion against a team from San Diego State with the nation’s eighth-ranked defense.

“They’re going to be a great test for us,” said sixth-year forward Justice Sueing, who is averaging 12.3 points and 3.0 rebounds on his return from a season as a medical redshirt. “It’s the first game in these next few weeks of really big games to test us and throw us into the fire. They’re a great team, very aggressive, play very hard in defence. You have many tools. It’s going to be a great game, but we’re not going to give up. We prepared great for them I think.”

Going to bed Wednesday night will give the Buckeyes a better understanding of where they actually stand as a team. It certainly won’t be all good news, and there’s a chance the results could be largely unpleasant.

Win or lose, that information is something the coaching staff looks forward to, according to Holtmann.

“I think just learn, get instant feedback on what you need to do as a team to improve,” he said when asked what he hopes to gain from the program’s first appearance at the Maui Invitational in 19 years. “That’s it. College basketball is different (than football) because a loss or two doesn’t hurt you. In a way, they really help you. You can get tested. Of course, as a coach, you want that early on. That’s the one Main reason.”

Let the learning begin.

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@Adam Jardy

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