Now a Buckeye, veteran guard Jamari Wheeler returns to Penn State
Penn State had beaten top-10 teams inside the Bryce Jordan Center before, but never like this.
When the final seconds ticked off from a 79-56 win on Feb. 15, 2018, the Nittany Lion roar blared over the speakers as the students rushed the court. In the chaos that would be capped with players standing on the scorers’ table pounding their chests and celebrating the moment, the Big Ten Network broadcast caught a quick embrace between James Franklin, the football coach, and a freshman guard who had played only four minutes in the win against No. 8 Ohio State.
Sunday, that freshman guard returns to the arena he called home for four years as a graduate transfer wearing the jersey of the team to take the biggest top-10 loss ever inside Penn State’s arena. Now the leader of the Ohio State defense, and a crucial cog in the team’s offense, Jamari Wheeler’s first Big Ten game as a member of the Ohio State program will come on the court he defended for four years.
“I’ll probably have both of both worlds: some cheering, some booing,” Wheeler said. “I’ve had a couple fans and friends reach out to me saying they’re excited. They’re going to be at the game. Obviously, we’re competing, so I won’t be surprised if I get a couple boos.”
He got plenty of cheers during his four seasons with the Nittany Lions. A three-year starter and two-time member of the Big Ten all-defensive team, Wheeler was part of the 2017-18 team that handed No. 8 Ohio State that blowout loss as part of a three-game season sweep of the Buckeyes. He finished his Penn State career sixth all-time in steals and 13th in assists and, in addition to hanging a banner in the arena, helped prevent the Buckeyes from doing so four years ago.
It's something Wheeler said he still talks about with his former teammates and coaches.
“They always say we took a championship from them that year,” he said. “We always joke about that. It was a big moment.”
Wheeler had an opportunity to return for a fifth season at Penn State, but a coaching change led to his decision to transfer and take advantage of the extra year of eligibility afforded to all players elsewhere. A Florida native, Wheeler committed to Duquesne in the class of 2017 because of a relationship he developed with coach Jim Ferry. When Ferry went to Penn State following the 2016-17 season, Wheeler did so as well.
Ferry was named the interim coach for the 2020-21 season after Pat Chambers stepped down following an investigation into his past conduct with the program, but when Ferry was not retained as the full-time coach Wheeler opted to look elsewhere.
“I’m a big guy on loyalty,” he said. “He’s one of the guys who started recruiting me early and we built that bond and I trusted him. It had a big decision to do with that. I feel like my old coach that was there, we could’ve rocked out but things happen for a reason and I’m glad I’m here (at Ohio State) now.”
It won't be the first time seeing those colors up close for Wheeler since his transfer. When the Buckeyes hosted Penn State in football this season, the entire Ohio State men's basketball team was there watching and jokingly testing Wheeler's loyalty.
When Penn State football players came over for pregame hugs, Wheeler's new teammates gave him plenty of good-natured grief. At one point, the scoreboard featured Wheeler's face, where he yelled his in-game support for the Buckeyes as his teammates celebrated the moment.
Under new coach Micah Shrewsberry, Penn State promises to bring a different style of play than what Ohio State fans have grown accustomed to during the last four years. The Nittany Lions are only turning opponents over on 12.2% of their possessions, the lowest mark for the program in the history of KenPom.com, which goes back to the 2001-02 season.
Some of that is scheme, and some of that is Wheeler now wearing scarlet and gray instead of blue and white.
“They’re very position-based,” Ohio State assistant coach Ryan Pedon said. “They don’t get as extended as they did in the past. They’re very sound. They make you earn anything. They don’t give possessions away. They won’t give you easy baskets. You’ve got to earn what you get from an offensive standpoint.”
When the Big Ten schedule released this season’s schedule and Wheeler saw the location of his first game, the fifth-year guard said he was excited but also thought it was a little crazy. The plan is to treat it like any other game, he said, the first of 20 in the Big Ten leading into the conference tournament.
It won’t be, though. There’s no way it can be, when an arena that used to cheer you might be booing you.
“I’m not sure how I’ll feel until it happens,” he said. “The booing, the trash talking, all that, that gets me going and gets me to the next level. Where I’m from, that’s how we play anyways. I’ve been playing like that my whole life.
“I really don’t care about what they say or anything like that. The only thing I’d be happy with is if we walk out of there with a win at the end of the day. Then I’ll get to boo.”