In hindsight, Luther Muhammad said that he’d been warned.
A hard-nosed defender known for his on-ball tenacity and competitive nature, he arrived at Ohio State last summer prepared to assume a major role on a young team. So when coach Chris Holtmann sat him down and warned him that his freshman season would probably include a significant bump or two in the road, he listened but didn’t quite process the message.
That came in due time, when Muhammad’s offensive game fell off at a precipitous rate and eventually helped cost him a starting spot for the final five games of the season. Similarly, classmate Duane Washington Jr. proved his ability to influence the game at a high level but sporadically found minutes hard to come by.
Both will be asked to do more this season. But perhaps more importantly, they will be asked to do what they did last year, but more efficiently.
“Most of it was just a learning experience,” Muhammad said at media day last Tuesday. “I was thrown into the fire playing a lot of minutes. That helped a lot and will help me be even better this year.”
In 17.2 minutes per game, Washington attempted the second-most three-pointers on the team (134) and hit on 30.6 percent of them, the second-lowest percentage among six Buckeyes to shoot more than 50 last season.
In Big Ten play, Washington attempted a team-high 84 threes and made 26.2 percent of them. Boosting his shooting percentage is something he’s been working on during the summer with new assistant coach Jake Diebler.
“Being someone who can shoot the ball, you get a rarity of open shots,” Washington said. “Wide-open ones, those are the ones you have to make count. You don’t shoot to miss; you shoot to make. You’ve got to put the ball in the rim and figure out (if you’re missing shots) if it’s shot quality, shot timing. Stuff like that.”
Muhammad’s struggles were heavily documented as the year progressed. He finished fifth on the team in scoring at 7.6 points per game despite shooting 23.5 percent during the final 13 games, when he averaged only 3.4 points.
A more dedicated approach to the grind of a full season has been a key for him since the previous one ended.
“I started out doing well, and then when I hit the wall, it was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to continue to get in the gym longer, shoot more,’” Muhammad said. “That’s what I was doing. Continue to stay in the gym, continue to stay with it. Just because something’s going wrong with me doesn’t mean I shut down. It’s a team sport for a reason. You can’t get into yourself.”
Both players will again play significant minutes, rotating with Florida State transfer CJ Walker and freshman D.J. Carton.
Holtmann made it clear at media day that, while he’s not expecting Washington or Muhammad to suddenly play at an all-Big Ten level, expectations have changed.
“You could look at their growth as being as important as anything with our team right now,” he said. “Are they going to learn from their freshman year, where they had some really good moments and some moments that they struggled?”