It was nearly three years ago that Kaleb Wesson, Sterling Manley and Jeremiah Francis were last competing on a basketball court together.
Midway through Francis’ sophomore season at Pickerington Central, the guard teamed with Manley, a senior, to knock off Wesson’s Westerville South team on its home court in a battle of unbeatens during Wesson’s senior season.
Francis scored a career-high 27 points on a night that saw him take a charge from Wesson and tell reporters afterward that he hoped his performance would lead to a scholarship offer from his father Jerry’s alma mater — Ohio State.
The offer ultimately came, but Francis opted to follow Manley and sign with North Carolina. On Wednesday night, all three central Ohioans were there when No. 6 Ohio State faced the No. 7 Tar Heels in the Dean E. Smith Center.
Only Wesson was in uniform, though. Manley has not played in a game in his junior season while dealing with a knee injury. Francis, a freshman, missed the majority of his final two prep seasons after undergoing an arthroscopic procedure on his right knee during his junior year that revealed seven bone chips and cartilage damage. That came in December 2017, and after trying to return to action during the ensuing summer, he wound up undergoing microfracture surgery and missing his entire senior season.
Both Tar Heels had to watch as Wesson and the Buckeyes came to town, but Francis said he’s eyeing a return to action this season.
"I believe I will be on the court at some point this season," Francis told The Dispatch in a phone interview. "I’ve been doing a lot more in practice, a lot more trying to get my mental game strong, learning all the plays and stuff that coach wants. I’m doing more each and every day."
Francis said the Tar Heels staff was supportive throughout his rehab process even as his recruiting rankings dropped. Now the staff is working to help him recover while also making sure his quadriceps are firing properly to prevent future injuries.
Although both Central products are coming back from injury, Francis said he spends more time working with classmate Andrew Harris, who is coming off a torn ACL, than he does with Manley.
"I believe the journey’s been a real up-and-down hill just to try to be yourself again and get your quad strong again," he said. "It’s been real up and down, but I believe I’m almost back to being who I am."
In that high school game in January 2017, the battle between Wesson and Manley figured to take top billing until Francis’ outburst. Tuesday, Wesson said he enjoyed growing up in the same region as Manley and that the two were AAU teammates while growing up.
"He’s been a good guy to hang around," Wesson said. "Fun guy, makes jokes all the time, keeps everybody goofy. Just a nice guy to hang around. Sterling’s a coach’s player. He’s going to play his role. That’s what got Sterling there."