CHICAGO — Ohio State’s immediate future remains a bit cloudy — NCAA Tournament or no? — but the Buckeyes’ not-too-distant future came into clearer focus over 80 minutes of basketball in the same arena where Michael Jordan cemented his status as one of the best ever.
It was there, in the United Center on Thursday and Friday, that OSU’s younger players, and especially the freshmen, got a look at what is required to win championships. It does not take MJ talent, but it requires the kind of singular purpose shown by Jordan as he led the Bulls to six NBA titles in eight seasons from 1991 to ’98. It also requires the passion to compete during every possession.
It was there, too, where Jordan once roamed, that Ohio State fans got another look at how much this group of underclassmen needs to grow for the program to ascend toward the top of the Big Ten.
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Coaches like to say, “The best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores,” the comment corresponding to the conventional wisdom that freshmen automatically improve from their first to second season.
The assumption does not always hold true. Look no further to OSU teams of recent vintage for proof. How much did center Amir Williams elevate his game? What can be said with near certainty is that freshmen seldom regress.
Of course, the Buckeyes need more out of their current freshmen next season than maintaining the status quo. A quick overview of necessary improvements:
• Freshman Luther Muhammad has raw talent, but it needs to be refined. The 6-foot-3 shooting guard is more herky-jerky than fluid, running the floor like his feet are on fire. The physical leaks into the mental, as Muhammad showed Friday in a 77-70 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament. Twice, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann shook his head after Muhammad miscues, including after a careless reach-in foul.
• Freshman guard Duane Washington Jr. is too much of a disappearing act. Here one minute, invisible the next. Such is the up-and-down life of many freshmen, but Washington will need to show up more consistently as a sophomore.
• Freshman forward Justin Ahrens wowed everyone with his 29-point output against Iowa last month, but then went scoreless against Purdue the next game, attempting just one shot. Some blamed Holtmann for not featuring Ahrens more in the offense, but if you don't play defense …
The good news for Ohio State is that freshmen usually do improve. Plus, it’s not that Muhammad, Washington and Ahrens were awful. Not even close.
“We lean on those guys a lot,” Holtmann said. “Pull some of the freshmen out and we’re not sitting on 19 wins.”
Muhammad is a strong defender and Washington clearly understands the game. His flow on the floor belies his lack of collegiate experience. Ahrens brings energy; the next step is to harness the exuberance — sometimes it leads him to distraction — without stultifying his spirit.
All three need to get stronger and play smarter.
“Decision making. Strength. Understanding what wins and loses at this level,” Holtmann said of what changes need to occur for the freshmen — and some of the other underclassmen — to take things up a notch.
The process already is happening. Muhammad and Washington were on the floor for the majority of the Buckeyes’ late 16-0 run against Michigan State, which with a lucky bounce or two could have led to one of the most amazing comebacks in school history.
If nothing else, Ohio State’s younger players experienced basketball at a level that opened their eyes; first against Indiana and then against the Spartans, who Holtmann said are the best Big Ten team he has faced in two seasons.
“It was really important … to play against elite competition in a tournament setting,” Holtmann said of his younger players.
Assuming OSU gets invited to the Big Dance, that tourney setting is about to ramp up. Let’s see how the kids handle it.