Since his arrival at Ohio State, freshman guard Luther Muhammad has been credited for bringing a competitive, focused approach to the men’s basketball team.

That will be tested anew Wednesday night when the No. 16 Buckeyes travel to Rutgers for their fourth Big Ten game of the season. The Rutgers Athletic Center, located in Piscataway, New Jersey, is close to Muhammad’s old stomping grounds. A four-star prospect who played for Jersey City Hudson Catholic, Muhammad will have a significant cheering section.

 

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Not that he’s putting any extra emphasis on the game — publicly, at least.

“I’m just as excited as any other game, to be honest,” Muhammad said Tuesday. “I’m not really focused on me going back home. There’s going to be a lot of family there.”

Muhammad has plugged right into the starting lineup largely because of his defensive tenacity. He’s started 12 of 13 games and shook off a dislocated shoulder, returning after missing just one game. In 28.5 minutes per game, Muhammad has averaged 9.5 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists while often drawing the top defensive assignment from coach Chris Holtmann. He is also third on the team in plus-minus rating at plus-151.

Rutgers did recruit him some early, Muhammad said.

Holtmann said he’s not too worried about Muhammad making too much out of his homecoming.

“Maybe we’ll have a conversation,” he said. “We’ll see. We haven’t really been in this environment with him yet. I don’t think that’s going to be the case. He’s got to focus in on what his team needs him to do each and every possession. That’s going to be our challenge to him. He’s got a great maturity. We’ll see how that translates.”

 

Meeting with Gene

While he was the Ohio State football coach, Urban Meyer would routinely meet with athletic director Gene Smith each Sunday during the season to talk shop. Holtmann said he doesn’t have a similar arrangement with Smith but that the two speak often.

“It’s amazing given the number of sports that he is in charge of, Gene is as accessible as any AD I’ve ever worked for,” he said. “I know he’s very vested in our (success). It’s not every Sunday necessarily like it was with Urban. Different sport, less games, all those kind of things, but he’s very dialed into what we’re doing. I can certainly pick his brain, bend his ear.”

It’s been different at all three schools where Holtmann has been a head coach. At Gardner-Webb, his athletic director was Chuck Burch, who “admittedly told me he didn’t know much about basketball but he knew about leading people. He was fantastic.”

At Butler, it was Barry Collier, who spent 17 years as a head coach split between Butler and Nebraska.

“He did not tell he didn’t know much about basketball, so that was a different dynamic because you know the guy knows what he’s talking about,” Holtmann said with a laugh. “I appreciated that as well with Barry a lot. He’s very honest in his critique and I always valued that and didn’t shy away from it.

“Gene has been a tremendous resource. He’s very good with people and understanding how people operate.”

 

High-flying Buckeye

Ohio State sophomore forward Kyle Young scored eight points in the Michigan State loss, but none were as eye-opening as the two-handed slam dunk he threw down off a Duane Washington three-point miss to tie the score at 66.

Trailing the action, Young was at the three-point line when the shot was launched but found his way to the lane, where he nabbed the ball midair and slammed it home to ignite the crowd.

Three days later, Young was modest about the play when asked how many times he’d watched the replay.

“I saw it a few times on Twitter,” he said. “A couple people reposted it so I watched it a few times.”

Seated to his left, Muhammad quietly replied, “It was nice. I replayed it like 10 times. Go Kyle.”

 

Ahrens out

Justin Ahrens did not make the trip with the team after coming down with what Holtmann said was the flu late Monday. According to Holtmann, the freshman forward started getting sick on the hour every hour and did not practice with the team Tuesday.

“Still really, really weak,” Holtmann said. “It’s just a virus that we think is highly contagious. Hopefully, he’ll be healthy and ready to go for our next road trip.”

The Buckeyes go to Iowa on Saturday.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy