CHICAGO — On an Ohio State men’s basketball team that depended on leadership by committee much of last season, it proved to be Keyshawn Woods who put the Buckeyes on his back and pulled them into the NCAA Tournament.
When his lifelong dream of playing in March Madness ended with a second-round loss to Houston, an emotional Woods sat in a corner of the locker room in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and promised that the team would be back next season, better than ever.
The reason for his belief sat across the room, yet he hadn’t broken a sweat that night. Woods identified guard CJ Walker, who last year had transferred from Florida State and sat out the season to satisfy NCAA rules, as the primary source for his confidence.
Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our BuckeyeXtra newsletter
“He’s going to fuel them, he’s going to lead them and he ain’t going to let them drop at all,” Woods said then. “They’ll be back.”
Walker, who described his sitting for a season as the hardest experience of his basketball career, is back and positioned to lead an Ohio State team that will be even younger than last year’s group, which ranked No. 251 among 353 Division I teams in terms of experience.
Despite not having played for the program, Walker was selected by coach Chris Holtmann as one of three team representatives to attend the Big Ten media day in Chicago last week.
“I think this is the most excited I’ve ever been to play basketball,” Walker said of the upcoming season.
D.J. Carton, a highly regarded recruit from Iowa, has received the most offseason talk regarding the point guard position. And though he will play a significant role, it’s clear that Walker will assume a captain-like role from the moment he steps on the floor.
“I think you’re going to like watching CJ Walker,” Holtmann said in Chicago. “He’s about the right stuff. He’s about winning, and I think he’s a coach in the making.”
His journey to Ohio State took Walker to two other Division I schools and across an entire continent. Born in Anchorage, Alaska, Walker moved to Indiana when he was 3 years old and hasn’t been back to Alaska since, although he hopes to return someday.
As a high school sophomore at Indianapolis Arsenal Tech, Walker helped lead the Titans to the 2014 state title. Soon thereafter, he ended his recruitment and committed to Purdue, but as time went on his thoughts changed.
“I made that decision kind of fast and didn’t really take any visits or talk to anybody else,” he said.
Walker later rescinded his commitment and signed with Florida State as a senior. Then, two years after being part of a Seminoles team that reached the Elite Eight, he opted to join Holtmann, who as coach at Butler had recruited Walker.
Now he has a fresh chance at Ohio State and two seasons of eligibility. Holtmann likes bringing in transfers who feel they have something to prove, which is where Walker finds himself after seeing his playing time diminish late in his sophomore season.
“I most definitely don’t have any regrets,” Walker said. “I feel like I took all those experiences and learned from them to get where I am today. I try to live in the present, ignore the past and take it day by day. It’s going to work out for itself.”
The hardest part, he said, was not being able to help during games last season. As the offense sputtered and the Buckeyes turned the ball over at an 18.7 percent rate (193rd nationally), he itched to get on the court and do something about it.
Now, with Carton, he is expected to help usher in a fast-paced era under Holtmann. Just as important, Walker will be called upon to bring along a team with four freshmen, three sophomores and only one scholarship senior.
“I took practice very serious knowing that I wasn’t able to play, and I think my team respected me,” he said. “Getting respect from my teammates is one of the ways the coaches believed in me and trusted me.”