As Ohio State’s summer term for freshmen gets underway June 19, four freshmen from the men’s basketball team will arrive on campus to begin their collegiate careers. The four, who all committed during a six-day period in mid-September last year, represent the first full recruiting class in coach Chris Holtmann’s time with the Buckeyes.
Before Justin Ahrens, Jaedon LeDee, Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington Jr. all arrive on campus, The Dispatch caught up with each of them to review their senior seasons, their reasons behind picking Ohio State and their hopes to contribute as freshmen.
A four-day series begins today with Ahrens, the lone Ohioan in the class.
247Sports rankings: No. 8 in Ohio, No. 51 at his position, No. 243 nationally, three stars
After committing to Ohio State, having reopened his recruitment after Thad Matta was fired but then opting to sign with the Buckeyes and Holtmann, Ahrens got his senior season going in a big way. In a home win against Celina, Ahrens poured in 46 points buoyed by 10 three-pointers. Both numbers are school records, and they were the first of many to fall throughout the year.
“He started off the year with a bang, definitely,” Versailles coach Travis Swank said.
Ahrens said he was expecting a big senior season but not one that started in such a prolific fashion.
“It was a great feeling (that night), knowing that every take you shot is going to go in,” he said. “With me, I’m such a confident shooter that every shot I take, I think it’s going to go in. That’s why no matter how much I miss, I’m going to keep shooting. That’s just how I am. That’s one thing coach Holtmann likes about me: I’m a confident player, I’m a confident shooter and I never doubt myself.”
Not only did the performance catch the eye of Ohio State fans, but it also sent a warning to opposing coaches preparing to face Versailles. Life was about to get a little more frustrating on the court for Ahrens.
In an effort to slow Ahrens or take him out of the picture entirely, opposing coaches started running versions of a box-and-one defense to try to disrupt the future Buckeye.
It had some success.
“We saw four boxes-and-ones in a row later on in the year, and in our last seven games we saw it six times,” Swank said. “We had games where we played really well in it and we had games where we didn’t play very well in it. There was definitely times he would be frustrated. He didn’t get quite as many touches in it as he probably would’ve liked, especially early on.”
It got to a point, Ahrens and Swank said, that the senior told the coach to take him out of the game because he felt doing so would help the team’s chances to win. One occasion came while playing in Dayton at the annual Flyin’ to the Hoop tournament.
“I was really out there just running in circles,” Ahrens said. “I was trying to get open, my teammates were setting screens but every time (defenders would) switch off. I could not get a touch unless it was a rebound and my defender lost me. I was just like, ‘Coach, take me out. I feel like if you replace me for our sixth man, our next five is better than their next five.’ I felt like if he took me out of some of the games, we would’ve been better off, but it is what it is. We played through it and he kept me in and we did the best we could.”
Aside from the challenges presented by the box-and-one defense, Ahrens still finished the year as the conference’s all-time leading scorer and holding around 10 school records. Some of them were a surprise until the team’s end-of-season awards banquet.
“I had no idea until our banquet when my coach brought it up, but I didn’t know I broke the career rebounds and assists records for my school,” he said. “I didn’t think I was even close. A lot of people just perceive me as a scorer for my team, but I do a lot more things than just score the ball.”
Swank said that while Ahrens did occasionally handle the ball for the Tigers, he didn’t spent much time running the point during the last two seasons. In a motion offense, Ahrens was utilized by coming off of screens and often with curl or backdoor cuts. The Tigers also ran a lot of sets involving “pick-the-picker” actions with Ahrens as the first screener, which would often allow him to get open for a quick shot or drive.
It added up to what Swank said was a better-rounded season than many give Ahrens credit for.
“I think a lot of people recognize him as just a shooter,” he said. “I think he’s worked on his ball-handling, he’s worked on getting himself into the basket area and scoring a little more that way. People from around this area who get to see him on a nightly basis know he can score multiple ways, but people around the state of Ohio and other people nationally might view him as just a shooter. I think he has more capability than that.”
The season ended with a 57-51 loss to Madeira in a district final as Ahrens scored 13 points. The Tigers finished 21-5 overall.
“It was a really fun season,” Ahrens said. “Obviously we didn’t have the outcome that we wanted. The main goal was a state championship and we didn’t make it there, but it was still a really fun season overall and we accomplished a lot for a lot of people who doubted us. I give a lot of credit to my teammates.”
Since his season ended, Ahrens said he’s worked to get stronger and improve his game to prepare for the transition to college. But he’s also made a point to reach out to friends such as Jae’Sean Tate and Luke Kennard and future teammates C.J. Jackson and Kyle Young for advice on how to handle the mental adjustment.
“I was asking them all, ‘What’s one thing you wish you would’ve done or known to improve on before you came into college?’ ” Ahrens said. “The answer I got mainly was to come in very well-conditioned and just know you’re not going to have the support you think you will. People will be supporting you, but it may feel like sometimes you’re the only one that believes in yourself. But you’ve got to believe in yourself no matter what.”
Swank praised Ahrens’ work ethic during his time at Versailles.
“He’s also probably the hardest-working kid that I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” he said. “A lot of people around this area are hard-working people that make a good, honest living doing really hard jobs. Justin does that here, too. He works extremely hard on his basketball craft, and I think that’s going to pay dividends for him when he gets to Ohio State.”