Impact of new faces could determine Ohio State's success without CJ Walker
The Ohio State men’s basketball team reported to the start of preseason workouts with a clear pecking order at the point guard position.
Leading the way was fifth-year senior CJ Walker, a Florida State transfer with three years of high-level Division I experience under his belt. Tucked in behind him was graduate transfer Abel Porter, an experienced Utah State product who had been to two NCAA Tournaments and was expected to play around 20 minutes per game as the primary backup.
Fast-forward to Friday, and the Buckeyes headed to No. 15 Rutgers for Saturday's game with both players unavailable. In their place, Ohio State could be turning to a player who was ticketed to sit out the entire season and another who had been preparing for his senior year of high school.
Against the Scarlet Knights, Bucknell transfer Jimmy Sotos is likely to assume the starting spot in Walker’s place. And as the game goes on, freshman Meechie Johnson Jr. — reclassified to OSU's 2020 class — could make his debut.
How all of this goes could be vital to Ohio State’s hopes to reach the NCAA Tournament once again with Walker sidelined indefinitely.
“I’ve thought Jimmy has done some really good things for us in games, but he hasn’t really had extended minutes,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “It is gonna be a lot of that with Jimmy and potentially Meechie. I don’t want to expect too much. Those are guys that are new to our program. They just have to be who they are and figure out ways they can contribute to winning possessions.”
Sotos had planned to sit out the season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules and Johnson planned to make his return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee while playing for his uncle, Sonny Johnson, at Garfield Heights High School near Cleveland.
The plans all changed when Porter was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a genetic condition in which an enlarged portion of heart can make it struggle to pump blood, and his career was suddenly over.
The Buckeyes filed an appeal, and then another, for Sotos’ immediate eligibility. Johnson decided to graduate early and join the team in mid-December. Now they’re preparing for more significant roles than they had bargained for.
Sotos has played sparingly behind Walker and Washington, averaging 7.9 minutes and 1.3 points with nine assists and five turnovers while playing in all 11 games this season.
“He’s had some good practices,” Holtmann said. “Obviously we played CJ and Duane (Washington Jr.) a lot so there’s been somewhat limited minutes there for him. He’s getting thrown into the fire with a terrific group of guards (in Rutgers) that’s going to be a real challenge to defend.”
Washington has handled time at the point during the past two seasons and will certainly assume more minutes there. The issue is that the junior is Ohio State’s leading scorer at 14.9 points per game, and a Buckeyes team that has been held to 70 points or fewer in three of their first five Big Ten games needs his scoring.
On Thursday, Holtmann said forward Justice Sueing also is an option to handle the ball. Junior Justin Ahrens has spent time at shooting guard this season, and junior Musa Jallow and freshman Gene Brown III could see time, as well.
None of them, however, is a true point guard, like Walker. If Ohio State wants to keep pace in what is shaping up to be the toughest conference in college basketball this season, they’ll have to adjust quickly.
Ohio State at No. 15 Rutgers
When: noon Saturday
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)