Ohio State's Jamari Wheeler aiming to bring home hardware after Penn State transfer
Back home in the greater Gainesville area, Florida native Jamari Wheeler knows where his basketball skills come from. Both of his parents were highly regarded prep players known for a killer on-court instinct, Wheeler said, and while he’s a self-described “momma’s boy,” it was a piece of advice from his dad that would prove pivotal to his own path.
“One thing he always taught me was every night you’re not going to be able to score 20 or what you want to score, but you’ve got to affect the game or find ways to win and do other things to help your team out,” Wheeler said. “That’s something my dad installed me.”
It’s led Wheeler to consecutive seasons on the Big Ten’s all-defensive team. That, in turn, helped lead him to Ohio State as a transfer after four seasons at Penn State. He joins the Buckeyes with a well-established defensive pedigree, a familiarity with the league and program and a few lofty goals — both personally and for the team.
Buckeyes basketball:Five pressing issues as Ohio State men's basketball navigates the offseason
Like his dad, Ryan Wheeler, said, it starts with defense.
“What also made me want to stay in the Big Ten, these last two years I feel like I got robbed for defensive player of the year,” Wheeler said. “Going into that, knowing they need that defense and knowing I want to be defensive player of the year next year, that’s a perfect fit for me.”
At various points last season, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann spoke glowingly of Wheeler’s defensive abilities, calling him a “warrior” and praising his disruptive capabilities. According to KenPom.com, his steal percentage of 3.7% was 115th nationally. The last Ohio State player to be at that mark was Aaron Craft, who was at 4.5% as a senior during the 2013-14 season. Wheeler averaged a career-high 1.8 steals per game, and his 44 steals were 15 more than Ohio State’s team leader Justice Sueing (29) despite the Nittany Lions playing six fewer games than the Buckeyes.
The 6-foot-1, 170-pound Wheeler immediately slots in as the team’s top defender and addresses a glaring weakness for the Buckeyes. It also has imbued the soon-to-be graduate with a belief that big things are around the corner.
“They’re already a winning program,” Wheeler said. “I want to take winning to the next level and get past that hump. Next year, we’re trying to win the Big Ten and a national championship. That’s our goals, set.”
Offensively, Wheeler averaged 3.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists at Penn State. As a senior, he averaged 6.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists.
The Buckeyes were among the first programs to reach out to Wheeler once he entered the NCAA’s transfer portal, signaling his intention to utilize the extra year of eligibility afforded to all players by the NCAA this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Nittany Lions were also a consideration, he said, but ultimately he’s seen enough Big Ten basketball to want to endure what could be a tough year for the program after naming Micah Shrewsberry to replace interim coach Jim Ferry.
“One thing I know is rebuilding in the Big Ten is tough because everybody’s tough and I didn’t want to go through no rebuild no more because I only have one year left,” Wheeler said. “I wanted to find somewhere that was going to keep making me better (and) also play in March Madness. I want to play in the (NCAA) Tournament and compete for championships. That was my No. 1 thing.”
It wasn’t an easy decision, Wheeler said, and the thought of playing against his former school is a strange one. He has suited up against the Buckeyes eight times, helping sweep them in three games as a freshman and growing into a more pronounced role as he progressed. As he sought feedback on the Ohio State coaching staff, Wheeler said he spoke with former coaches at all levels and came away confident in coach Chris Holtmann and assistant Jake Diebler, his primary recruiter.
Those recommendations would prove vital as all of his recruitment was done virtually. Wheeler will graduate from Penn State this spring and head directly to Ohio State, where he will meet his new teammates face-to-face. In the interim, he said he’s been communicating with many of them on a daily basis.
Last year’s two games against the Buckeyes give him a pretty good idea of what to expect upon arrival.
“They’re a great team,” Wheeler said. “You’ve got to prepare for the best 4 in the game with (E.J.) Liddell and (Duane) Washington, a good shooting guard. And they play hard all the time. The only thing I know how to do is go hard, so I wanted to go somewhere that’s going to play hard.”
Wheeler is likely to not be the only addition to the roster this offseason. The Buckeyes remain in the mix for a post player and are among three finalists for five-star center Efton Reid, who will announce his decision April 15. Whatever happens, Wheeler said he’s ready to embrace his role for his final season of college basketball.
Just like his dad told him.
“I’m ready to go on this run,” he said. “It’s going to be one season for the books, definitely.”