OSU still searching for 5th starter

Adam Jardy
Justin Ahrens dunks against Northwestern on Wednesday, when he opened the second half in Ohio State's lineup. [Brooke LaValley/Dispatch]

The first half of Wednesday’s game against Northwestern didn’t feel any different for Ohio State freshman Justin Ahrens. Accustomed to life as a lightly used role player, Ahrens had done his habitual job of calling out opponents’ plays and doing his best to keep his teammates fired up.

Then coach Chris Holtmann approached him at the end of halftime.

“Justin … you’re in for Moose,” Holtmann said, using the nickname of sophomore forward Musa Jallow, who had started the first half and the last nine straight games for the Buckeyes.

Ahrens, who hadn’t played during the first half, immediately replied, “Right now?”

His spot in the lineup established, Ahrens contributed a pair of quick baskets — one on a dunk — in seven minutes of playing time as Ohio State ended its two-game losing streak with a relatively comfortable 63-49 win against the Wildcats.

After the game, Holtmann said the decision to swap Ahrens in for Jallow was a reward for how engaged Ahrens, who had been averaging 6.4 minutes in 17 appearances, had been during the first half and did not imply anyone else was not similarly engaged.

It also highlighted the fact that the Buckeyes are still searching for a fifth starter. Senior C.J. Jackson, junior Andre Wesson, sophomore Kaleb Wesson and freshman Luther Muhammad have been mainstays, all starting at least 24 of the first 26 games, but sophomore Kyle Young’s ongoing recovery from a stress fracture in his lower right leg has complicated lineup decisions.

Saturday against Maryland, there could be further issues. Young remains limited in practice, Holtmann has said, and is unlikely to return to a starting role anytime soon. Jackson, meanwhile, was coming off a rolled ankle the game prior to Northwestern before suffering an injury to his left shoulder that left him “unable to practice much” Thursday, Holtmann said.

Holtmann said he would prefer to have that lineup spot locked down, but injuries and youth have combined to make his rotations more fluid than he wants at this point of the season.

“I’m kind of searching,” he said. “Keyshawn (Woods) would rather come off the bench. I think he likes seeing the game for a little bit. (Still searching) is probably a good way of putting it.”

That has created opportunities for Jallow and Ahrens, who both have contributed at times this season. Jallow has averaged 2.7 points and 2.9 rebounds in 14.2 minutes per game, while Ahrens has averaged 1.7 points and 1.1 rebounds.

Against the Wildcats, Jallow played the first 5:02 and did not return to the game, finishing with two rebounds and one block. In 13:53, Young was 4 of 5 from the field and had four rebounds and two assists.

If any of that indicates more time coming for Ahrens, he said he is ready.

“You’ve always got to be ready when your name is called,” he said. "That's what I was trying to do to the best of my ability."