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Ohio State leaning on young guards Branham, Johnson at near-unequaled rate in Big Ten

The Columbus Dispatch logo The Columbus Dispatch 12/11/2021 Adam Jardy, The Columbus Dispatch
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A former college guard himself, Jake Diebler has spent much of the last year bringing along a pair of young guards in Meechie Johnson Jr. and Malaki Branham.

In turn, the two youngsters have taught the Ohio State assistant coach a thing or two about himself.

“I think they’re teaching me patience at times,” Diebler said with a laugh.

It was Tuesday afternoon, one day after the Buckeyes returned to the Associated Press top 25 poll and two days after a road win against Penn State. The next night, No. 21 Ohio State would defeat Towson.

With those victories (plus their earlier dispatching of then top-ranked Duke), OSU enters a top-25 matchup Saturday against Wisconsin riding a three-game winning streak.

The Buckeyes will also enter Saturday's game as one of only two Big Ten schools relying so heavily on multiple freshmen. KenPom.com computes a statistic tracking percentage of possessions used, assigning a value to a player “when his actions end a possession, either by making a shot, missing a shot that isn’t rebounded by the offense, or committing a turnover.”

Ohio State guard Malaki Branham (22) is averaging 7 points per game for the Buckeyes, and Meechie Johnson (0) is averaging 6.6. © Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch Ohio State guard Malaki Branham (22) is averaging 7 points per game for the Buckeyes, and Meechie Johnson (0) is averaging 6.6.

Ohio State basketball: Which lineups worked for Ohio State in its win against Towson?

Nebraska’s Trey McGowens leads the league’s freshmen with a 24.2% usage rate. Teammate Eduardo Andre, who like Johnson played last season, is at 23.0%. McGowens enters the weekend averaging 16.4 points while playing a team-high 34.4 minutes per game, ahead of Andre’s 4.1 and 11.1, respectively.

Johnson's and Branham's usage numbers, in that order, are 21.6% and 20.7%. That places them second and third on Ohio State's roster behind only E.J. Liddell's 34.6%. 

The Cornhuskers are 5-5, 0-2 in the Big Ten. Ohio State is 7-2 and 1-0 in league play and doing it with two guards considered freshmen. In other words, no Big Ten team winning at the rate Ohio State is winning relies on youth quite as much.

Stats show that outside of Nebraska, no Big Ten team is relying more on freshman players than Ohio State is counting on Meechie Johnson (0) and Malaki Branham (22). © Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch Stats show that outside of Nebraska, no Big Ten team is relying more on freshman players than Ohio State is counting on Meechie Johnson (0) and Malaki Branham (22).

Video: Watch Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann break down a win against No. 22 Wisconsin (The Columbus Dispatch)

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It’s shown at times.

Johnson scored 14 points in a loss at Xavier and hit the game-winning shot against Seton Hall in the Fort Myers Tip-Off but was scoreless against Duke and had two points and three turnovers in the loss to Florida. He’s averaging 6.6 points and playing 20.5 minutes per game after starting the season opener.

“I’ve grown a lot,” Johnson said. “I’ve had some big games where it was big for me and some games that was, ‘what the heck, man?’ That’s basketball. It’s a long season.”

Buckeyes basketball: After 'timid' start to season, Ohio State's Meechie Johnson aiming for improvement

Branham has been a little more consistent, scoring between 7-11 points in seven of Ohio State’s nine games. In the two on-site games in Fort Myers, though, Branham scored six total points on 2-of-8 shooting and had five turnovers.

Both players have talked about learning through their mistakes in the early going. Against Florida, Branham had a two-handed dunk blocked from behind and later said that’s the first time something like that has ever happened to him in a game.

“On that play, I felt like I came up slow and it was kind of easy to block it,” Branham said. “If I would’ve went up fast I would’ve easily got the bucket. Just stuff like that, I work on things in practice. Adjusting and playing at a faster pace.”

Michigan, too, is leaning heavily on a pair of freshmen, but they aren’t both guards. Forward/center Moussa Diabate and guard Frankie Collins are at 20.9 and 20.7%, respectively, for a Michigan team picked to win the Big Ten in the preseason media poll conducted jointly by the Dispatch and the Athletic but has stumbled to an overall record of 6-3 and 1-0 in the Big Ten.

The usage rates for Branham and Johnson don’t figure to be decreasing anytime soon. The Buckeyes have consistently preached that the duo’s growth will pay dividends as the season progresses and Big Ten play gets fully underway come January.

Holtmann said the Buckeyes work to make sure players dealing with adversity for the first time in their careers don’t get too into their feelings or down on themselves. Veterans like Liddell are used as examples of players who, after encountering bumps along the way, grew into All-Big Ten players. In recruiting, Holtmann said the coaches quiz players on personal adversity and take notes on how potential future Buckeyes have responded.

The final step is trusting the process — and maybe downing some antacids.

“Our young guys, Malaki and Meechie both, and our sophomores too, have all progressed well,” Diebler said. “We’ve got to keep doing that. Their willingness to learn and hear out and give an ear to our upperclassmen has certainly been beneficial.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio State leaning on young guards Branham, Johnson at near-unequaled rate in Big Ten

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