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An improved Duane Washington Jr. could elevate Ohio State hoops from good to great

On a roster filled with injury concerns, Washington Jr. may be the steady force that takes the Buckeyes to the next level.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

On Jan. 11, the Buckeyes hit what seemed to be rock bottom of the 2019-2020 basketball season. Ohio State, on the heels of three straight losses, marched into Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana and lost to the Hoosiers by 12 despite holding a three-point lead at halftime. Indiana outscored the Buckeyes by 15 in the second half as Ohio State shot 32.7% from floor, including just 30.8% on two-point shots. With the loss, Ohio State’s conference record sunk to 1-4.

Duane Washington Jr., Ohio State’s second-leading scorer at the time, logged just over eight minutes in the loss, finishing with two points that both came on free throws. It was the first time in his career he did not have a single shot attempt in a game. Washington’s limited playing time was not due to injury or the “the flow of the game” as coaches sometimes say. He was pulled around the 10:00 mark of the first half after allowing Indiana player to easily blow by him for a bucket, and it was apparent he had very little interest in contesting said basket. He would go on to play just four more minutes the rest of the game.

After the game, a 66-54 loss, Holtmann was asked about Washington’s absence in the second half. “I just did not feel like he was ready to play,” Holtmann said. “He was not prepared to play in a tough environment on the road. I just did not feel like his mind was where it needed to be, and it was pretty evident even in the short minutes that he played,” Holtmann told the media shortly after the loss.

Duane Washington (4) is fouled attempting a shot against Indiana.
Photo courtesy of Ohio State Athletics

Two days later, on the afternoon Ohio State was set to play Nebraska at home (the Buckeyes went on to win, 80-68), Holtmann announced that both Washington and Luther Muhammad were being suspended indefinitely for “failing to meet program expectations and standards.” It is unclear if their effort in the Indiana game was part of the decision, but one would assume that it had to contribute to the decision.

After a short, one-game suspension, Washington Jr. returned against Penn State and dropped a team-high 20 in a loss. He would finish the season as Ohio State’s second-leading scorer, at 11.5 points per game. His effort on the defensive end of the floor and attention to deal were not discussed again for the remainder of the season. He will enter the 2020-2021 season as Ohio State’s highest returning scorer, with Kaleb Wesson declaring for the NBA Draft.

Ohio State is going to need him at his best this season, perhaps more than anyone else on the roster. In addition to being the leading scorer returning from last year’s team, he is also one of the few players on Ohio State’s roster not also carrying over a serious injury concern from prior seasons. The Buckeyes’ largest question mark this season will not be the talent, because there is plenty of that. It will be if those talented players that Chris Holtmann has pulled together will all be healthy at the same time, so that Ohio State can reach its full potential.

For the first time in probably a decade, I think Ohio State has a roster talented enough to make a very deep run in the NCAA Tournament. However, if injuries persist with Seth Towns and Kyle Young, or if their recovery from surgeries do not go swimmingly for Musa Jallow and Justice Sueing, Ohio State may not make the NCAA Tournament at all. The ceiling has not been this high in nearly a decade, but the floor is also concerningly low if every little thing that can go wrong, does.

This is why Washington’s performance this year on both ends of the floor as well as mentally, will be so important. If Sueing, Towns, and Young are all 100% healthy and performing at the top of the game, you’re looking at three players who could all earn All-Big Ten honors by the end of the season. Sueing averaged 14.3 points per game during his last season at Cal before transferring to Ohio State. Seth Towns was the Ivy League player of the year the season before that. And we’ve all seen how important Kyle Young is to Ohio State when he is on the floor. The Buckeyes win when Young plays, period.

When you throw in Washington, CJ Walker, and E.J. Liddell to that group, you’re looking at a possible Final Four-caliber team.

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

But what if things go wrong? What if Sueing’s foot that he had surgery on last season does not respond well? What if Musa Jallow’s surgically-repaired ankle takes away the lateral quickness that made him such a valuable and versatile defender for the Buckeyes two years ago? What if not playing for two full years causes Seth Towns to lose a step or two, and he just isn’t the same player we saw dominate the Ivy League? And what if Kyle Young’s beaten-down, war-torn legs (his whole lower body at this point, really) just can’t sustain a full season?

There will almost certainly be games this season where one or more of the aforementioned players will not be able to play. Or maybe they all play, but just aren’t quite the same players they were in years prior. Washington’s progression into a more well-rounded player will fill in those cracks and pick up the slack. He averaged 11.5 points per game last season, and with the weapons around him this year, that number may not go up much. But even if he just holds steady at that clip, while other areas of his game like defense and passing improve, he’ll be able to keep this team afloat if things begin to go awry.

I cannot recall a season where Ohio State’s potential was so high while the worst-case scenario was equally so low. There are so many moving parts and “what if’s”, it is nearly impossible to accurately predict where this team will end up. But as long as Duane Washington Jr. progresses during his junior year the same way he did last year, at least we know that we’ve got something steady there to hold down the fort if things start to go sideways.