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Musa Jallow, Justin Ahrens stayed patient in earning roles for Ohio State basketball

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Musa Jallow, fighting for a loose ball with Northwestern's Boo Buie on Jan. 13, contributes for Ohio State in defensive areas that don't show up on the stat sheet.

Justin Ahrens and Musa Jallow bring somewhat opposite skill sets to the Ohio State men’s basketball team. In order to use them for the Buckeyes, though, both juniors had to follow the same path.

On this year’s team, the rule of thumb for earning playing time has been to be ready to take advantage of whatever role is presented.

In the case of Ahrens, that has meant building on a strong offseason to seize upon a starting spot once CJ Walker went down with an injury. For Jallow, that has meant putting together a strong string of practices, forcing his way back into the rotation and emerging as a key defensive player when the Buckeyes need late-game stops.

Ahrens scores points. Jallow prevents them. Both have stayed the course and produced when called upon.

“I think the reality is what you’re trying to stress for everybody is be ready when your number is called and sometimes it takes a maturity and understanding to do that,” coach Chris Holtmann said before No. 7 Ohio State played at No. 8 Iowa on Thursday night.

“Young players can’t always do that,” Holtmann added. “If they don’t bring the energy in practice, maybe somebody else that brings the energy deserves the opportunity.”

After playing only two minutes in a home loss to Purdue and then being a healthy unused substitute in the win at Wisconsin, Jallow found himself on the floor for the final moments of an 83-79 win against Penn State on Jan. 27. He didn’t record a statistic in four minutes of playing time, but his defense helped keep Seth Lundy from adding to a season-high 26-point effort.

Four days later in a win against Michigan State, Jallow played 16 minutes and finished with three fouls, one block — and the type of nagging defense that’s not really quantifiable.

“Bottom line is, Musa practiced well the last couple days,” Holtmann said. “He’s practiced well in the past, but we felt him in practice (recently). I thought he deserved a look.”

Ohio State forward Justin Ahrens is shooting better than 50% from three-point range in the past six games.

The same has proven true for Ahrens, albeit in a more pronounced role. After bottoming out with one minute of playing time in a one-point road loss to Northwestern on Dec. 26, Ahrens hit 6 of 9 three-pointers in the next game, a blowout win against Nebraska.

Since then, he has made at least one three-pointer in each game. In his past six games, he’s shooting 51.4% (18 for 35) from deep. In Big Ten games, he is fifth with an average of 2.2 makes per game. It’s an offensive threat that has made it hard for Holtmann to take Ahrens off the floor even as he continues to work on his defensive game.

“It’s different this year,” Ahrens said of his self-belief. “I’d say I’m more confident, but I’m also more confident in my defense this year than I have been the last two years. That helps me play freely when I’m out there now.”

That both players are still Buckeyes somewhat bucks the current reality of transfers in Division I men’s basketball. While Ohio State has seen its share of players transfer out in recent years, it has maintained the likes of Ahrens and Jallow, who certainly could have looked elsewhere, given some of their early struggles for playing time.

“I’m happy in a lot of ways for those guys and in particular a guy like Justin who has really been patient,” Holtmann said. “Listen, no one from the outside understands the amount of conversations that go in one-on-one, player-coach, behind the scenes. You just try to be honest and up front with how you see things and that’s all you can hope for and hope they embrace it and those guys have.”

For the Buckeyes to keep pace near the top of the Big Ten, it’s an ongoing lesson they’ll have to continue to embrace.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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For coverage of Thursday's OSU-Iowa game, visit BuckeyeXtra.com.