INDIANAPOLIS, IN. — Ohio State freshman guard and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Malaki Branham had another standout performance in the Buckeyes’ loss to Penn State on Thursday night. As did junior forward E.J. Liddell. But this can be said of both players in essentially every game for the Buckeyes this season, win or loss.
“Malaki Branham is tough,” Penn State head coach Micah Shrewsberry said. “Not like tough for a freshman, he’s tough for a player. Those guys [Branham and E.J. Liddell] caused so many problems.”
Liddell led all scorers with 25 points, eight rebounds, and two big blocks for Ohio State in its game against Penn State in the second round of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament. Branham had 16 points going 6-of-12 from the floor.
On the season, Branham averages 13.2 points and 3.6 rebounds per game while shooting over 49 percent from the floor. He is just one of only two from a Power 5 school to have multiple 30-point games this season and only one of three in Ohio State history to do it as a freshman.
The “Malaki Branham Game” against Nebraska on Jan. 2 was the Buckeye freshman’s coming out party. Branham had a breakout game, scoring a season-high 35 points on 13-of-19 shooting and 6-of-10 from long range. But Ohio State still needed overtime to beat Nebraska.
E.J. Liddell has been consistently good for the Buckeyes and has always been a major factor in Ohio State’s success both offensively and defensively. Liddell emerged as a go-to player for the Buckeyes this season and earned himself All-Big Ten defensive honors. The junior forward averages 19.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 2.6 assists per game this season. He has scored double-figures in every game for the Buckeyes.
With Liddell and Branham, Ohio State has a perfect one-two-punch. But it often isn’t enough to equate to wins for the team.
Ohio State relies heavily on both Liddell and Branham. But the physicality of the teams in the Big Ten have been wearing Branham down, sometimes taking away how effective he can be for the Buckeyes. He pushes through the physicality to still get things done for his team, but it’s too heavy of a load.
“Our guy here, we’re really reliant on a freshman to carry a big load for us and it’s probably too much, honestly, to expect him against the — the kind of physicality that he’s facing to expect that of him. We’re not going to change our age right now,” head coach Chris Holtmann said. “But I thought at the end of the day, their [Penn State’s] physicality did wear us down a little bit. It wore him down a little bit, but that’s been the case for everybody, right, the last eight games. You saw that at Maryland, you’ve seen that pretty much every game.”
Ohio State has seen breakout games from other players on the roster, notably Joey Brunk as of late. But with how thin the roster is due to injuries, it takes more of a group effort to pull out wins at this point in the season. On Thursday night, Holtmann was concerned with how much they relied on the efforts of Brunk, Liddell, and Branham. Ohio State only had nine points from its bench as compared to Penn State’s 31 points.
“I had to play Joey 30 minutes,” Holtmann said. “That’s a rough assignment for the amount of minutes that he needs to play going against a guy that physical. Probably played E.J. [Liddell] and even Malaki [Branham] a few too many minutes. I thought we wore down a little bit.”
Ohio State, out of the Big Ten tournament, has their longest break of the season to get healthy, make adjustments and prepare for their next matchup. But if the level of physicality the Buckeyes face continues throughout March, Ohio State can only make it so far relying so heavily on two players, one of whom is a freshman — Thursday night was proof of just that.
Photo via Ohio State Buckeyes