CJ Walker provides unexpected scoring boost for Ohio State men's basketball team
CJ Walker wasn't brought to Ohio State to assume the role of primary scorer.
Providing steady leadership, taking care of the basketball and defending at a high level fit more neatly into his job description than go-to offensive weapon.
On Tuesday night, on a team that desperately needed its offense to get right, Walker spoke for all of his teammates after an 80-68 win against Nebraska. Or, at least, all of them who were able to play against the Cornhuskers.
“Once we saw the ball fall in the first half, it just went from there,” Walker said. “That's all we needed to see. We've been playing defense really well. We just haven't been able to make shots.”
That changed in a big way against a rebuilding Nebraska team expected to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten. The Buckeyes shot 54.5% from the field, made 45.5% of their three-pointers and had six players score in double figures. Walker led the way with 18 points.
It marked a season high for the Florida State transfer, who entered averaging 7.2 points overall and only 5.6 in Big Ten play.
He chalked up his 7-of-12 shooting night, which included a 2-of-3 effort from three-point range, to the confidence that came from finally seeing the ball go in the basket. During the four-game losing streak preceding Tuesday's game, Walker had averaged 6.0 points while shooting 34.5% (10 of 29) from the field.
Walker wasn't the only one to get it right against the Cornhuskers. Kyle Young had 10 points after scoring three in his previous two games sandwiched around a two-game absence for having his appendix removed.
Freshman E.J. Liddell had 10 points off the bench for his first double-digit scoring game since he scored 14 in a loss at Minnesota on Dec. 15. He had scored nine points during the four-game losing streak while shooting 2 of 7 from the field. He was 3 of 5 against Nebraska.
Even sophomore Justin Ahrens, who had scored five points in Big Ten play this season, had five against the Cornhuskers.
Coach Chris Holtmann saw a primary reason for the offensive improvement.
“Better ball movement,” he said. “Ball didn't stick as much, and we did make shots, but I would say overall better ball movement. I thought we just moved a little quicker and we were able to attack them in ways and get to the paint more than we had in previous games.”
Of course, that was aided by the Buckeyes facing a Nebraska team allowing 73.8 points per Big Ten game, the third-highest mark. Holtmann also pointed out that the Buckeyes have plenty they can clean up. Case in point: Nebraska outscored Ohio State 25-12 in the final 8:02 of the game. During that span, the Buckeyes committed three of their 12 turnovers.
There's plenty of work to be done, pending decisions on the potential return of suspended guards Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington Jr.
An offensive drought like Ohio State has endured for a few weeks isn't fixed with just one game.
But it's a start.
“I told them it's great to see smiles on their faces, but we need to play better in certain areas,” Holtmann said.