Chris Holtmann had a lot to be excited about as his third season as Ohio State men’s basketball coach was getting underway.
Preseason talk centered on the return of all-Big Ten player Kaleb Wesson and an influx of freshman talent, and expectations were raised accordingly for the Buckeyes.
If you really wanted to hear Holtmann gush, though, you had to pay a little bit closer attention. He reserved some of his highest praise for guard CJ Walker, a transfer from Florida State who had to sit out the previous season.
Holtmann frequently referred to Walker as a future coach and a player whom Ohio State fans would come to love for the leadership qualities he brought to the court. As the regular season ends with games against two ranked opponents, Walker is putting together a body of work that validates his coach’s preseason praise.
“His floor game has been outstanding for about four weeks now,” Holtmann said after Sunday’s win against then-No. 19 Michigan.
Not coincidentally, Walker’s ascension has coincided with the prolonged absence of freshman guard D.J. Carton, who won’t play in Thursday’s home finale against No. 23 Illinois as he continues to address mental health issues. No longer splitting time with a more athletic but raw player, Walker has settled into an increased role.
During Carton’s nine-game absence, Walker’s scoring is up to 10.3 points per game compared to 7.5 through the first 20 games. His playing time has increased from 26.8 minutes per game to 32.9, his assist-to-turnover ratio has nearly doubled from 1.7-1 to 3.3-1, and his two-point field-goal attempts have increased from 3.6 per game to 5.0. In Big Ten play, he is second in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.8-1.
He has posted some of those stats without junior forward Kyle Young, who Thursday will likely miss his third straight game with an ankle injury. Holtmann said Young remains day to day. Freshman forward Alonzo Gaffney will also be out.
Statistically, according to KenPom.com, Walker has had a season on par with the likes of Aaron Craft in 2012-13, Shannon Scott in 2014-15 and Michigan’s Zavier Simpson last season.
“Just being consistent,” Walker said when asked about his play during the past month. “Being the same person every day. Just going hard in practice, stay consistent, stay focused. You’ve just got to step up for the moment.”
His play has helped the Buckeyes resurrect a season that threatened to spiral when a home loss to Minnesota on Jan. 23 dropped them to 12-7 overall and 2-6 in the Big Ten. Ohio State had played more competitively in that loss than in other games, but it wasn’t enough. Afterward, Walker fought off tears while speaking to the media, saying, “It just hurts. It hurts a lot.”
A little more than five weeks later, Walker put together his most complete stat line of the season. While hounding Simpson on defense, Walker scored 15 points, tied career highs with seven assists and six rebounds and had just one turnover while playing nearly 37 minutes.
“As I’ve said all along, he’s going to be a really good coach,” Holtmann said. “I love the kid. I think he realized he was going to have to lead and coach this team and there was going to be more on his shoulders, and he’s embraced that with the absence of D.J.”