Ohio State men's basketball power rankings: No. 4 Jamari Wheeler
With the promise of fans in the stands and a return to normalcy, Ohio State will open the 2021-22 season with an exhibition game against Indianapolis on November 1. Eight days later, Akron will come to Value City for the first official game, a visit that canceled last year when COVID-19 delayed the start of the season.
The Buckeyes will bring a 15-man roster to their sideline this season, one with unprecedented experience that features two players in their sixth years of college basketball and four others in their fifth. Third-year forward E.J. Liddell is the first Ohio State player to return after being named first-team all-Big Ten since Aaron Craft did so in 2013-14, and his decision to return after exploring his NBA draft stock has the Buckeyes opening the season picked to finish fourth in a joint media preseason poll conducted by The Dispatch and The Athletic.
With all of that in mind, The Dispatch is counting down to the start of the season with our annual power rankings. These rankings are an educated guess at which players will have the most significant on-court impact during the course of the entire season and will feature each player on the roster.
The rankings continue today with Jamari Wheeler.
No. 4 – Jamari Wheeler
Class: Graduate (fifth year)
Height/weight: 6 feet 1 / 170 pounds
Jersey number: 55
Major: Sports coaching
An unranked recruit in the 247Sports.com composite database, Wheeler was listed as a three-star prospect and the No. 22 player from Florida by ESPN for the class of 2017. As a senior at Gainesville The Rock School, Wheeler averaged 16.0 points, 6.0 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 steals per game while helping lead his team to a school-record 35 wins. The Gainsville Sun named him the Small Schools Player of the Year.
Initially signed to play at Duquesne, Wheeler changed course when coach Jim Ferry was fired following the 2017 season and followed him to Penn State, where he was named an assistant under Pat Chambers. There, he grew into an impact player particularly at the defensive end where he was twice named to the Big Ten’s all-defensive team (2020 and 2021). As a sophomore, he was named Penn State’s most improved player.
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In four seasons with the Nittany Lions, Wheeler started 84 of 127 games and finished sixth in career steals (192) and 13th in assists (332). He never missed a game for Penn State, averaging 3.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.88.
Wheeler has never played in an NCAA Tournament game. He went 4-4 against Ohio State while with the Nittany Lions.
Need to know
His mother, Kieasha Perry, played basketball in high school and had offers to play collegiately. Wheeler played his first two prep seasons at Live Oak (Florida) Suwannee, where he was teammates with future Florida men’s basketball player Kevarrius Hayes. As a child, baseball was his favorite sport and he also played football in high school. As a sophomore, he was named second team all-area in football for Suwannee in 2014, catching 31 passes for 509 yards and 10 touchdowns. Auburn, James Madison, Buffalo, Houston and others were also known to have offered Wheeler a scholarship out of high school.
His favorite basketball player growing up was Chris Paul, and his favorite zoo animal is a lion. Wheeler is the shortest player on the Ohio State roster. His 192 career steals would rank fourth in Ohio State history. As a sophomore, Wheeler was named a member of the team’s “Juice Squad” alongside two teammates to serve as a role model for leading and motivating teammates. Ohio State assistant coach Jake Diebler was his primary recruiter. During media day, third-year Ohio State forward E.J. Liddell described Wheeler as the biggest trash-talker in the Big Ten.
In what would be his final season at Penn State, Wheeler started all 25 games and averaged 6.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 rebounds. All four averages were career highs for Wheeler, who was also named to the Big Ten’s all-defensive team for a second straight season.
Ohio State fans saw his prowess when he came up with steals against Justice Sueing and then Meechie Johnson Jr. during the final minute of the first half of a game at Value City Arena. Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann has since apologized to Johnson for putting him in that position, and now the two teammates have been going after each other in practice all summer and fall. Holtmann praised him on multiple occasions during the year, calling him a warrior
Although his scoring average increased, his field goal shooting percentages all dipped after three straight years of improvement. Wheeler went 29 for 64 (45.3%) from two and 30 for 84 (35.7%) from three as a senior after shooting career-best marks of 51.7% (31 for 60) and 38.9% (14 for 36) as a junior. In a season marred by COVID and a surprise coaching change shortly before it got underway, Wheeler found himself shooting nearly as many threes as he did during his first three seasons (97) combined.
Wheeler shot a career-best 62.9% (22 for 35) from the free-throw line, and his steal percentage of 3.2% was the 115th-best mark in the nation according to KenPom.com. 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 in Justice Sueing (29) despite the Nittany Lions playing six fewer games than the Buckeyes.
When Penn State didn’t retain Ferry, Wheeler opted to look around and quickly picked the Buckeyes.
“They’re already a winning program,” Wheeler told The Dispatch at the time. “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.”
With a glaring need for experience in the backcourt, Wheeler’s transfer to Ohio State immediately made him a front-runner for the starting point guard spot. A natural at the position, his defense-first attitude made his likely role an obvious one.
“Be the best defensive player on the court, bring my toughness, my vocal skills, my point guard skills, lead and keep elevating my game to the next level,” he said when he committed. “That was one thing coach kept saying when they were recruiting me, that he likes what I bring on both ends of the floor and that I’ve been getting better every year on the offensive end. Keep doing that and keep doing what I’m doing on the defensive end.”
Offensively, Wheeler isn’t quite what Ohio State’s point guard for the last two seasons, CJ Walker, was able to produce. Despite torn ligaments in his right hand, Walker’s scoring (9.5) and assists (4.4) per game were ahead of Wheeler’s totals while his 2.0 turnovers per game was a shade ahead of Wheeler’s average of 1.8.
But in a backcourt that will feature heavy doses of second-year guard Meechie Johnson and first-year guard Malaki Branham, Wheeler’s experience, leadership and grit have him as an odds-on favorite to open the season at the point. Holtmann has described Wheeler as an everyday-type of player, someone who attacks each practice with the same amount of intensity.
“You want him next to you any time you're competing and doing anything,” Holtmann said during the preseason. “He's really helped us. He brings a lot of juice to practice every day. He's been really good for us.”
Asked what his message to his fellow Ohio State guards is on a daily basis, Wheeler said, “Just showing them. Bringing it. The best teaching point is bringing it yourself so if somebody isn’t bringing that energy every day and you get on them they have no choice but to respect you because that’s what you’re doing every day. Just living by that.”
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Previous power rankings
No. 5 – Zed Key
No. 6 – Meechie Johnson Jr.
No. 7 – Justin Ahrens
No. 8 – Malaki Branham
No. 9 – Cedric Russell
No. 10 – Joey Brunk
No. 11 – Jimmy Sotos
No. 12 – Gene Brown III
No. 13 – Seth Towns
No. 14 – Harrison Hookfin
No. 15 – Kalen Etzler