Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington have played their way into any meaningful conversation about Ohio State’s early-season success. But as the freshmen guards were helping lead the Buckeyes to a season-opening road win at Cincinnati, their two other classmates could only watch.
Neither Jaedon LeDee nor Justin Ahrens were among the eight players in coach Chris Holtmann’s rotation for the eight-point win against the Bearcats. Then both got into the game in Sunday’s blowout against Purdue Fort Wayne, but it was LeDee who left the biggest impression. The power forward/center was on the court for 13:28 and scored 16 points thanks to a 12-for-14 performance from the free-throw line, while Ahrens did not check in until 5:55 remained in the game and the Buckeyes were already ahead by 34 points.
So what kind of roles could the two carve out as the season progresses?
“I think it will vary from game to game with Jae, but I think there’s no question he needs to be ready every game,” Holtmann said Wednesday. “I told him I thought the minutes he gave us in the first half the other night were positive and really encouraging ones.”
During the first half, LeDee played 3:20 and had one rebounding and added a foul shot. He was the second substitution off the bench and replaced sophomore center Kaleb Wesson once he picked up a foul. He checked in with the lead at 11-10 and checked out with it at 18-16.
Most of his production came in the second half as the game got wildly out of hand.
“The time from the second half 10 minutes on, I’m not saying it was irrelevant but the game was out of hand at that moment,” Holtmann said. “Those minutes in the first half were really good and he’s got to build off those moments and provide some consistency. That’s what it is for young players. A lot of guys can play well in one game. The real measure of how a player is maturing and developing is what kind of consistency he can bring.”
Wesson, one unquestioned starter on the roster, said he has no worries about LeDee when he’s on the court.
“I feel comfortable with Jae coming in the game whenever,” he said. “I feel like Jae has put in as much work and he works as hard as everyone else here so he deserves his shot as much as anyone else.”
Ahrens looks ticketed for a lesser role in the early going. Although Holtmann said during the preseason that the staff wasn’t likely to redshirt anyone, Ahrens seemed like a growing candidate until he entered the game. Holtmann said there were conversations about redshirting but the decision was obviously made to not go that route, and it was a joint decision made to help the freshman grow.
He pointed to Villanova, which won last year’s national title game with Mikal Bridges, who redshirted as a freshman, as just one example.
“I didn’t have a little conversation with Justin and say, ‘I’ve decided we’re not going to redshirt you, so go ahead and go in,’ ” he said of putting him into the game. “Those conversations are had before with player and family. We had those thoughts, but I don’t know that we got real serious with any guy. We’re going to need Justin this year, but we’re also going to need him really to be ready next year. Sometimes having a year of playing as a freshman helps with that.”
Sore but fine
After taking a nasty-looking fall during the final minute of the first half of Sunday’s game, Andre Wesson was diagnosed with a lower back strain. Foul trouble limited him to only a few minutes of second-half action, and after the game Holtmann said the junior would likely be sore for a few days but that he was not expected to have any significant effects from the fall.
Wednesday, he said that is how the week has played out.
“He’s doing fine,” the coach said. “He’s had some soreness, but that’s really the extent of it. He’s fine.”
Wesson’s younger brother, Kaleb, was watching from the bench when the play occurred.
“Just like when anybody gets hurt, you say a quick prayer but the game’s got to go on,” he said. “I knew he was all right. He’s a tough dude. We’ve fought before so I knew he was cool. Stuff like that, yeah, you just pray everything’s all right and keep playing.”
He did eventually give his sibling a hard time for not finishing the dunk, as you’d expect brothers to do.
“Yeah, a little bit – (but) not while he’s down on the ground,” Kaleb Wesson said.
With the two wins to open the season, Ohio State has started to draw some national attention. The Buckeyes received 14 points in the Associated Press poll, good enough for No. 34 in the country. As of Wednesday evening, they had climbed to No. 33 in the KenPom.com national rankings. Monday, NCAA.com writer Andy Katz had them at No. 22 in his national power rankings.
“I had the Buckeyes finishing in the bottom tier in the Big Ten,” Katz wrote. “Well, Ohio State made sure it won’t be irrelevant with a season-opening road win at Cincinnati. The Buckeyes were in control the whole game, sending a statement to everyone in the Big Ten. Oh, and then they put up 107 points in a second win against Fort Wayne.”
Holtmann had little interest in discussing his team’s rising national profile.
“I don’t pay it one bit of attention,” he said. “At this point, all I’m concerned about is what we’re evaluating on a practice-to-practice and game-to-game basis. It’s way too early. We don’t know how good we are. We don’t’ know how good our opponents are. Maybe 15 games in we’ll be able to say we’ve been able to accomplish some things.”