What Luther Muhammad’s departure says about Ohio State - and what it doesn’t
Ohio State lost one of its most experienced players Sunday when Luther Muhammad entered the transfer portal. A two-year starter for coach Chris Holtmann, Muhammad started the third-most games during that stretch and did it with tenacity and some hard-nosed defense.
Muhammad leaves behind a lot of minutes to replace and a sizeable hole particularly on the defensive end of the court. He’s also the third member of the 2019-20 team to leave, joining freshmen D.J. Carton and Alonzo Gaffney.
What does it all mean? Here are a few thoughts.
From a traditional guard standpoint, the Buckeyes are thin in the backcourt now with senior CJ Walker and junior Duane Washington Jr. listed as the only true guards on the roster. Both can handle the point, as seen last season, with Washington a more natural off-guard than his older counterpart.
Ohio State could still add to the roster, but the Buckeyes seem most likely to add a traditional sit-one guard rather than one with immediate eligibility. The reason they are comfortable with those numbers is they have a number of wings who could play anywhere from the 2 to the 4 given the matchup or specific in-game need.
Justice Suing, the California transfer who sat out last season, is a prime example. So, too, is Harvard graduate transfer Seth Towns, presuming he returns to full health. Add in junior Musa Jallow, who sat out last season due to injury, junior Justin Ahrens and freshman Gene Brown, and there are four options who all stand between 6-5 to 6-7.
Muhammad did play the 2 a lot last season. He also played the 3, so filling his minutes won’t just fall on the traditional guard position.
At the moment, Ohio State is still waiting on a final decision from center Kaleb Wesson on whether he will return for his senior season or pursue a professional career. Wesson has declared for the NBA draft but opted to keep his eligibility open, a decision fueled in large part due to the uncertainty around the draft process on account of the coronavirus pandemic.
For his offensive improvements last season, Wesson made just as big a jump on the defensive end. On the wing, older brother Andre was Ohio State’s most reliable perimeter defender. On the ball, it was Muhammad, who immediately impressed with his defensive attitude.
Presuming that Kaleb Wesson doesn’t return, the Buckeyes will be straight-up losing their three best defenders off a team that finished 19th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com. That’s a blow.
The lingering question over Muhammad’s departure is what this says about the state of the program and whether there are deep-seated issues within the Buckeyes that are leading to the recent departures.
Here’s what we know. Carton’s decision to leave was due to his own mental health issues, something he has stated in multiple public messages since stepping away from the team in late January. Gaffney struggled to adapt to the college game, never carved out a role and was ultimately away from the team for the final four games before opting to leave the program and is possibly pursuing a professional career.
Muhammad, meanwhile, averaged 25.9 minutes per game during his first two seasons and would have likely assumed a similar role as a junior. His defensive abilities alone figured to have him squarely in the rotation next season even with the additions of Sueing and Towns, both of whom will be counted upon to play significant minutes this season.
Sources have indicated to the Dispatch that Muhammad was looking for a more pronounced offensive role that the Buckeyes were not prepared to promise him.
Nick Mariniello, Muhammad’s high school coach, told The Dispatch that he supports his former player even if he might not have made the same choice.
“What will make me happy is if he finds what’s best for him,” Mariniello said. “He feels this if what’s best for him, then I have to support him whether I agree or disagree. It was an honor to coach him. In my 20-some years of doing this and having 45-some guys going to Division I, he is probably the hardest-working guy in practice every day. If he feels that making a change is best for him, then I have to support him. But I also have the upmost respect for his coach, the assistant coaches and the university because they treated him fairly and with honesty.”
Including Gaffney, Muhammad is the fifth player to leave the roster with the intention to transfer since the start of the 2018-19 season following also Micah Potter and Jaedon LeDee.
It’s hard to find much of anything that these defections have in common other than they were either looking for playing time they had not or would not earn or they had a personal situation that needed to be addressed. Sources within the program have indicated that the roster going forward looks to be stabilized, and there is a strong belief among those who have remained that the future remains bright.
As evidence, they have pointed to this: if something was amiss internally at Ohio State, would the team have righted the ship after a 1-6 stretch to close with nine wins in its final 12 games?
It’s possible to both be concerned about losing five players in two years and also realize that nearly 1,600 players nationwide have left programs with the intention to transfer during that time span and that number continues to grow.