Ohio State men's basketball power rankings: No. 8 Justin Ahrens

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State Buckeyes forward Justin Ahrens (10) celebrates a three pointer against Purdue Boilermakers during the 2nd half of their game at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio on Janauary 23, 2019.  [Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch]

Ohio State will open its 2020-21 men's basketball season by traveling to South Dakota to participate in the Crossover Classic. The three-day event that takes the place of the Battle 4 Atlantis will see the Buckeyes face Memphis on Nov. 25 in what will be the first Ohio State game in 262 days. The hope is to play a 27-game season that will include 20 Big Ten games and lead into a conference and then NCAA Tournament amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

More:How the Battle 4 Atlantis found a new home in South Dakota as the Crossover Classic

In preparation for an unprecedented start to the season, The Dispatch is counting down with power rankings for each member of the Ohio State roster.

These rankings are an educated guess at which players will have the most significant on-court impact during the course of the entire season.

The series reaches the midpoint today with the No. 8 player in our rankings.

No. 8 – Justin Ahrens

Position: Forward

Class: Junior

Height/weight: 6 feet 6 / 195 pounds

Jersey number: 10

Background: A native Ohioan, Ahrens committed to play for Ohio State during the Thad Matta era. When Matta was fired during the summer leading into Ahrens’ senior season at Versailles, Ahrens reopened his recruitment and first announced six finalists: Dayton, Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue, Vanderbilt and Xavier. That list was cut to the Buckeyes, Wolverines and Musketeers, and after official visits to Michigan and Ohio State Ahrens would up committing to Chris Holtmann.

He arrived at Ohio State as a three-star prospect, the No. 7 player from Ohio and overall No. 249 national recruit in the class of 2018 according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings. Ahrens was the Ohio Division III co-player of the year in 2017 and 2018 and scored 46 points including 10 three-pointers during a win against Celina, Ohio, as a senior. He graduated holding around 10 school records. 

In 101 high school games, Ahrens averaged 20.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists while shooting 39.0 percent (230 for 590) from three, 59.7 percent (503 for 842) from inside the arc and 74.8 percent (350 for 468) from the free-throw line.

As a freshman, he mostly saw minimal playing time for the first two-thirds of the season before playing himself into the spotlight in unprecedented fashion.

In a 90-70 blowout home win against No. 22 Iowa, Ahrens exploded for 29 points on 6-of-10 three-point shooting after having scored a total of 38 points and made nine three-pointers during the first 27 games. It came after Ahrens had been seeing increased playing time, and it gave a taste of what could be looming for Ahrens as a sophomore. He averaged 3.2 points and 1.8 rebounds in 9.6 minutes per game as a freshman.

More:Justin Ahrens’ coming-out party unlike any in Ohio State history

Then came a major back injury that essentially wiped out his entire offseason and had him re-learning how to perform basic physical functions. It was the result of a deadlifting session gone awry and two herniated discs in his back, and the effects hampered Ahrens for the entire season. More on that in a minute.

Need to know: Ahrens was close friends with Cincinnati product Darius Bazley, and the two initially committed to play for Thad Matta at Ohio State during August of 2016. Ahrens’ older brother Kyle, played at Michigan State and was a senior last season. He is one of six kids and has a twin brother, AJ, who also attends Ohio State. Former Duke standout Luke Kennard is also a close friend. He discussed redshirting prior to his freshman season at Ohio State but ultimately decided to play.

2019-20 recap: Many players make their biggest gains from freshman to sophomore year, when they have the opportunity to put in a full offseason of work with the program’s strength and conditioning staff and build on a full season’s worth of film work.

Ahrens got very little of that due to the injury, and it significantly limited his production. He played in 26 games and saw his average minutes played creep up to 10.0 per game while his scoring average dipped to 2.9 points. He shot 40.4 percent from three-point range but most of his playing time came during the second half of the year. Ahrens did not play in four of the first 13 games but did shoot a team-high 42.9% from three (15 for 35) during Big Ten play. His only two double-digit scoring games came on back-to-back nights when he had 12 points in a road win at Northwestern that ended a stretch of six losses in seven games and followed it with 11 points in a home win against Indiana.

He was 7 for 10 in those two games from three, but he would score only 18 points in the final 10 games and was scoreless in the final five games of the season.

But, included in there was one final one-on-one opportunity against his older brother on Michigan State’s senior day. The two were matched up, with the younger brother on defense, at the top of the circle in the closing seconds of a Spartans win, and Justin gained the upper hand by forcing him to give up the ball and then miss a jumper.

2020-21 outlook: Ahrens is healthy and hoping to make a significant impact. Ohio State lost its two best three-point shooters in Kaleb and Andre Wesson, and the Buckeyes will need someone to provide a shooting threat that will help loosen up driving lanes and keep opposing defenses honest. There are a few options on the roster, but Ahrens has consistently been the team’s best shooter in nearly every workout and practice session, ahead of junior guard Duane Washington Jr.

In a late October interview with The Dispatch, Ahrens said he will have no hesitations about letting it fly this season and that he realizes he has the potential to be a 20-to-30-minute player on any given night. The offseason was a lot of work on defensive detail and trying to simply become a better player at that end of the court.

There is a clearly defined opportunity for Ahrens on this roster. If he can continue to shoot at a high level, he will play his way into the rotation.

“The past two years, I was an 8-to-10-minute guy,” Ahrens told The Dispatch. “Obviously I’m not sure what this season is going to look like, how many minutes I’m going to play a game, but I feel like I’m going to be a lot better than I have in the past two seasons. Obviously with just knowing more, learning how to study the game better, having a full offseason where I was able to dedicate myself to the grind and I was just in the gym all the time working.”

Additional reading:

For Justin Ahrens, senior season was about patience, versatility

Justin Ahrens taking steps toward getting more playing time

Versailles rallies around Ahrens brothers

Previous power rankings:

No. 9 – Musa Jallow

No. 10 – Ibrahima Diallo

No. 11 – Zed Key Jr.

No. 12 – Gene Brown III

No. 13 – Jimmy Sotos

No. 14 – Harrison Hookfin

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy