Justin Ahrens looks to lead Ohio State men’s basketball past Iowa again
Justin Ahrens doesn’t have a framed newspaper clipping or a game-used basketball to commemorate his performance against Iowa last season.
“That’s framed pretty well in my memory,” he said Wednesday.
It was the type of breakout performance that will remain etched in Ohio State basketball history. A seldom-used reserve for much of the season, Ahrens exploded for 29 points on 6-of-10 three-point shooting to lead the Buckeyes to a 20-point win over the Hawkeyes.
It came one game after he hit three three-pointers in a loss at Maryland and was the unquestioned highlight for a freshman season in which Ahrens made 10 total three-pointers in the other 33 games.
On Thursday, 25th-ranked Ohio State will face No. 20 Iowa in the lone regular-season game between the teams this season. When the Buckeyes head to Iowa City, they will bring a sophomore version of Ahrens, who has settled into a role in coach Chris Holtmann’s eight-man rotation.
He’s done it by knocking down 12 of 18 three-pointers the past six games in the best stretch of three-point shooting in his career.
“He’s got the green light whenever he’s open,” Holtmann said. “He’s actually taken better ones than he did when he was more limited in his minutes.”
Entering the Iowa game last season, Ahrens said, he felt like he was trending toward a breakout type of performance. This year, the journey has been more about regaining confidence, strength and form after suffering two herniated disks in his back during a summer weightlifting session.
“Obviously with the injury I had, I kind of had to take a few steps back and restart,” he said. “I’m focused on continuing to improve every day in practice.”
On off days, that has meant shooting until he makes 500 three-pointers, Ahrens said. During practices, it takes the form of increased focus on defense. That remains a work in progress and something Holtmann consistently mentions when discussing Ahrens’ development.
As the Buckeyes have adapted to the absence of freshman guard D.J. Carton, who will miss his sixth game as he deals with mental health issues, Holtmann has settled into a rotation that includes Ahrens. He was a healthy unused substitute in five of the first 19 games and played five or fewer minutes in five other games.
As his shooting has picked up, Ahrens has played between 10 and 16 minutes in each of Ohio State’s past six games as the Buckeyes have gone 5-1.
“(By now) you’ve played a lot of games and see what guys can do and can’t do,” Ahrens said. “Coach kind of lets you know what they expect out of you.”
The expectation for Ahrens is fairly simple.
“Get in and shoot the ball,” he said. “Play some defense. I’m happy with my role and what I do.”
Now it’s time to see whether the Hawkeyes will feel the same way again.