Jamari Wheeler already impacting Ohio State with his defense
A question about the future sent Chris Holtmann into the not-too-distant past.
With Ohio State leading visiting Penn State by eight points and less than a minute to play during the first half, Nittany Lions guard Jamari Wheeler stole the ball from Justice Sueing and scored to pull within six points. First-year Buckeyes guard Meechie Johnson Jr., playing in only his sixth career game after graduating early from high school and joining the team in December, then brought the ball up the court for one final shot.
Instead, Wheeler turned Johnson back toward midcourt, picked his pocket and drove for a buzzer-beating layup. It pulled Penn State within 43-39 at the break of what would become an 83-79 win for the Buckeyes, and it had Holtmann apologizing for putting Johnson into that position.
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“I put Meechie in a terrible spot last year late in a half,” Holtmann said last Thursday. “I allowed him to bring the ball up against him. It was bad on my part.”
That one play is now a battle that has taken place daily for an Ohio State team in search of backcourt answers. Now preparing for one season with the Buckeyes after four with Penn State, Wheeler has matched up frequently with Johnson throughout the preseason. During a portion of practice that was open to reporters, Wheeler was seen picking Johnson up full-court and applying pressure with every dribble as the second-year guard tried to initiate his team’s offense.
Asked what it’s been like to see the two battle each day, Holtmann used one word: fun.
“It’s been great for Meechie,” Holtmann said. “He’s been able to learn and protect the ball at a higher level.”
In the moment, it might not be so great for the Garfield Heights, product. When Wheeler first arrived at Ohio State, Johnson said the two spoke about the time the veteran “ripped” the ball from the youngster last year at Value City Arena. It was one of only five turnovers for Johnson last season, who appeared in 17 games and finished 27 seconds shy of logging 100 minutes for the year.
At Ohio State media day, which took place two days before practice started, Johnson said Wheeler’s impact was already making him a better player. Upon committing to Ohio State, Wheeler told said his goal is to become Big Ten defensive player of the year.
“Every practice, I think about (that turnover) as motivation,” Johnson said. “He’s one of the best defenders in the country. Going up against him every day it’s like, I can’t let that happen again. It’s done nothing but make me a better player.”
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Wheeler said his preseason approach is about “toughness, getting 1% better every day. I know that pays on the long run. Embracing every day, because every day is a great moment. Embracing that and just keep getting better and competing.”
Those lessons have not been exclusively reserved for Johnson, either. Holtmann said Wheeler reprised his act against Sueing so quickly that the fifth-year forward didn’t even realize what had happened.
“We were scrimmaging (Wednesday) and Justice drove it and I think it took him about three seconds to realize that Jamari had already taken his ball and was headed toward half court,” Holtmann said. “He was about to lay in air, and that’s who Jamari is. He’s going to be fun to watch on that end.”
Especially because, this year, he won’t be doing it to the Buckeyes in games that matter.