Six days ago, Ohio State Buckeyes forward Justin Ahrens was still trying to figure out how he could contribute for the scarlet and gray this season. The true freshman had played in just 17 of the team’s first 16 games while averaging 1.7 points and 1.1 rebounds and shooting 39.3 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from beyond the arc in 6.4 minutes per game. It was obvious that Ahrens was trying to find his role and was just waiting for an opportunity to prove himself.
That moment came last Saturday and became even more obvious Tuesday night. With starting point guard C.J. Jackson missing this past weekend’s game at Maryland due to a shoulder injury, head coach Chris Holtmann decided to give Ahrens the nod, which would be his first career start for the Buckeyes. I publically questioned the move to start Ahrens over a sharpshooter like Duane Washington. I learned quickly that I should never question Holtmann and his decisions because, well, he has yet to do anything that should make anyone question him.
Prior to this week, Ahrens had yet to play more than 11 minutes or shoot more than five times in a single game. Although Ohio State lost to the Terrapins, Ahrens finished with a career-high nine points, four rebounds, two steals, and a block in a then-career-high 27 minutes.1
Late in the game, Ahrens made a three-pointer with 2:37 remaining in the scarlet and gray’s loss at Maryland. After knocking down that three, he put his finger over his mouth, signaling for the crowd to quiet down. With his team trailing by six, that move wasn’t the smartest idea, but it gave the Buckeyes a glimpse of the true freshman’s confidence, something that became even more evident Tuesday night.
Then the Iowa game happened. Although Jackson was ready to play after missing just one game with the injury, Holtmann decided to give Ahrens his second straight start. It was a decision that might have changed the Buckeyes’ season entirely.
After scoring just 38 points in his first 18 appearances of the season, the true freshman had a team-high 29 points in the 20-point win over a ranked Iowa squad Tuesday night. Of those 29, he scored 25 in the second half, finishing with the sixth-most points in a game for a freshman in Ohio State’s long, storied history. It was also the second-most points scored by a Buckeye this season.2
The sharpshooter made 7-of-11 shots from the field, including 6-of-10 from long distance. He also added three rebounds, two assists, and one steal. Ahrens had previously attempted only two free throws all season, making one of them. Tuesday night, he attempted nine and was a perfect 9-for-9 from the free-throw stripe.
If it wasn’t clear after Ahrens tried to quiet the crowd at the end of the game at Maryland this past weekend, the forward doesn’t lack any confidence. He never hesitated Tuesday night, even if it was the first big-time game of his first year at Ohio State, at least that he played in. The best part about all that is that in order to be a good shooter, a player must be confident in himself. They have to believe that every shot they put up will go in. The true freshman did just that.
“When I got hot, it was going up,” Ahrens said of his hot hand following the game.
Even though he hasn’t played many significant minutes throughout his first season in Columbus, Ahrens has continued to put in the work. He has never let playing time, or lack thereof, get to him, which is why he was ready for his moment against Iowa.
“There is no doubt in my mind that it’s the direct result of his dedication to the process,” Ohio State video coordinator Kyle Davis told WFNY in regards to Ahrens and his performance. “That kind of breakout performance this late in the year is a testament to his mindset of coming in with a goal to get better every day, regardless of playing time. While I’m sure fans were surprised, our coaches and staff believed he would be ready to contribute when his number was called. He competes in practice every day, and he has absolutely put in the work to warrant the result everyone saw Tuesday night.
“The way Iowa plays with that press we knew he was going to get some open looks. I think it’s fair to say Iowa didn’t respect him as a shooter.”
Ahren’s performance was special but the best part was how all of his teammates reacted every shot and every made three-pointer. They were just as, if not more, excited than he was. There’s a reason for that.
“You know how you can judge he’s a great dude, too,” Davis said. “Look at how his teammates celebrated for him after every shot. That matters and it was all genuine too. No jealousy at all.”
All of that culminated in the celebration during Ahrens’ first postgame interview on the court:
It’s so easy to root for this team. Chris Holtmann is turning the Buckeyes into something very, very special. pic.twitter.com/xTEQGgqCaL
— Josh Poloha (@JorshP) February 27, 2019
It might be tough if not impossible for Ahrens to replicate that performance the rest of the season, but if he can force defensives to now worry about him beyond the arc, it completely changes the Buckeyes’ offense. Opponents have continuously double-teamed Kaleb Wesson every time he gets the ball at or near the post. Can they do that now if guys like Ahrens, C.J. Jackson, and other shooters are on the perimeter? Probably not.
It wasn’t a coincidence that with Ahrens’ hot hand, Ohio State scored 90 points against a ranked opponent and one of the best teams in the Big Ten.3 In an offense that has been in search of some legitimate and consistent scorers for throughout much of the Big Ten season, Ahrens was (and can be) just that. Even if he isn’t making so many shots, the fact that opposing defenses now have to worry about him will open things up for other members of the scarlet and gray. If he is making shots like he did Tuesday night, well, good luck, defense.
“How Ahrens builds on this momentum is going to be a key for our team as we close out the Big Ten season,” Davis said.
Davis wasn’t the only one with positive words about Ahrens. His head coach had even more positive things to say as well.
“When you think about him a month ago even at the Michigan game he is different. He still struggles in some areas defensively but the thing I love about Justin is he’s a confident kid, but his focus has been on the team playing well and finding a way to help the team play well,” Holtmann said following the game. “He’s lost himself in that and I think he’s been rewarded because he’s continually gotten better.
“The threat that he can be is going to help our team moving forward. I’ve certainly seen freshmen emerge as key players in the last month and a half of the season. Because they understand the game better, their shot selection gets better.”
With just three games remaining in the regular season, the Buckeyes weren’t only in search of some consistent offense, but also another solid win to add to their resume ahead of the NCAA Tournament. A win over No. 22 Iowa is just that. The fact that it was a 20-point blowout made it even better. Ahrens is a huge reason for that, and now, Ohio State seems to be in the driver’s seat and will control their own destiny when it comes to Selection Sunday.