D.J. Carton hasn’t been physically present with the Ohio State men’s basketball team since taking an indefinite leave of absence Jan. 30, but coach Chris Holtmann was clear about the freshman after Saturday’s 68-52 win against Purdue.
He definitely remains a member of the Buckeyes as he works his way through mental health issues that led to him stepping away from the team.
"D.J. is still very much a part of our team and a part of our program," Holtmann said. "We stay in regular communication with him."
Saturday marked Ohio State’s fifth game without the freshman. Prior to Wednesday’s home against Rutgers, the Buckeyes unveiled an updated highlight video montage that no longer featured Carton in game action. The edits, the program said Wednesday and Holtmann reiterated Saturday, were about putting updated game footage on display and had no bearing on Carton’s status with the team.
His status was brought up Saturday by a question about how the Buckeyes have fared without the freshman.
"We had to look at changing some things both in our rotation and in how we are playing," Holtmann said. "We’ve had to look at changing some things. It’s still kind of evolving. We’ve had some other guys step up. What it has allowed is a guy like Justin (Ahrens) to be in the rotation more consistently."
Since he took a leave of absence from the team, Carton has returned to his hometown of Bettendorf, Iowa, which is a one-hour drive east of Iowa City. The Buckeyes go to Iowa on Thursday to face the Hawkeyes, and Holtmann was asked if Carton could potentially return for that game.
"I don’t have an answer on that right now, one way or the other," the coach said.
Purdue coach Matt Painter, who coached Carton while he was playing for Team USA during high school, expressed his support for the freshman as well.
"He’s a really talented guy," Painter said. "He’s a special player. Any time you lose that next guy, now other people have a little more responsibility."
Not even six minutes into the game, junior guard CJ Walker had already put up seven points to push Ohio State’s lead to 15-6 and they had all come in succession.
First, Walker was awarded two points when Purdue’s Nojel Eastern was called for goaltending to lead into the first media timeout. Two possessions later, he hit on a deep three-pointer off an Andre Wesson assist. Then, after he picked off a Sasha Stefanovic pass, he finished at the other end as the crowd roared.
It was a rare outburst for Walker, who entered the game averaging 7.5 points for the season and 7.2 in league play. It wasn’t sustainable, either, as Walker would finish with nine points in 29:43.
That didn’t matter, though, as he finished with four assists, two steals and zero turnovers in a game where the Buckeyes committed 16.
I asked Holtmann what Walker provides in such a game.
"In a game like today, his ball handling, his ability to initiate offense under duress was critical," he said. "You look at our game from at Indiana, how much better we are at initiating offense against pressure than we were at that time. Some of that is we had a couple different point guards, but we’re much better at getting into our stuff against pressure right now than I believe we were."
There was more. With the lead at 26-18 in the final moments of the first half, Andre Wesson turned the ball over to lead to a Purdue transition opportunity. Walker’s hustle, however, helped to blunt the attack, which ended when E.J. Liddell stole the ball from Aaron Wheeler with 51 seconds to play.
Walker’s contribution there didn’t show up on the stat sheet in any way, but that doesn’t minimize its importance.
"Your junior point guard, he’s got to make those plays," Holtmann said. "That’s the expectation for him, to be able to make those kind of plays. That’s who he is as a player. That’s why we recruited him. He’s a high-level competitor and he did that today."
What felt like Ohio State’s most complete defensive performance in recent memory was backed up by analytics.
The Buckeyes finished with a defensive efficiency rating of 77.0, their best mark in a Big Ten game since holding Rutgers to a mark of 74.8 back on Jan. 14, 2018, in a 68-46 home win.
"They’re very difficult to guard," Holtmann said. "I thought our defensive consistency was good. We had stretches in the first half where we both missed shots and turned it over against their pressure, which they’re good at. Some of that was on us and some of that is credit to them."
Purdue, which entered the game 13-0 when outshooting its opponent, finished 19 for 54 (35.2%) from the floor. Most importantly, the Boilermakers only hit on four of 20 three-point attempts (20.0%) against an Ohio State defense that was allowing Big Ten teams to shoot a league-high 37.9% from deep.
"(Holtmann) wanted us to pressure the ball a lot and find a way to do both, guard the three and contain the drive," sophomore guard Luther Muhammad said.
Muhammad has started to show more signs of offensive life even while dealing with injuries to both shoulders. After scoring 10 points in Wednesday’s win against Rutgers, he had 11 against the Boilermakers.
It’s the first time he’s had consecutive double-digit scoring performances since he had 11 in the second and third games of the season. After hitting two threes against the Scarlet Knights, Muhammad hit three against Purdue.
He had been 10 for 35 (28.6%) from three in Big Ten play before his last two games.
"It felt good," he said of his shooting performance against Purdue. "Showing me that hard work pays off. Stay with it. Continue to work hard."
Added Holtmann, "He was great. Made shots, took good ones, took clean ones, kind of played off other guys. I thought he played really solid and then impacted the game on the other end. I thought Luther was as good as maybe he’s been. I do think he’s getting his legs a little bit back from a tough January."
He also had a team-best plus-26 individual plus-minus rating for the game.
The Buckeyes had at least one recruit on hand for the win.
Logan Duncomb, a four-star center in the class of 2021 from Cincinnati Moeller, was at the game and spent time afterward posing for photos on the court while wearing a No. 24 Ohio State jersey.
It’s common practice for recruits to participate in such photo shoots while on visits, but it’s clear that the Buckeyes are active in his recruitment. The 6-foot-9, 225-pound Duncomb is the No. 121 national recruit in the 247Sports.com composite rankings.
"In this league, man, it’s big-boy basketball every night. I thought we had some really good stretches today, I really did. I thought we were a little bit too sloppy at times, but I thought we had some really good stretches of play this week in general. As complete as we would like? Not necessarily." – Holtmann