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Column: Starting Justin Ahrens is still smart and fun

With a soft schedule to begin the season, there’s no reason not to get Ohio State’s best shooter some early playing time.

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

Last week, we learned that neither Seth Towns nor Musa Jallow will be healthy enough to play when Ohio State tips off on Wednesday. Towns, the Harvard transfer and former Ivy League Player of the Year, is going to be an immediate difference maker for the Buckeyes once he’s ready to go. But until he’s healthy, who fills that spot?

Justice Sueing makes sense. He’s 6-foot-7, can guard multiple positions, and just knows how to score the basketball. Jimmy Sotos, the transfer from Bucknell, would also be an intriguing option. He’s a 6-foot-3 guard who averaged over 11 points per game last season while also dishing out nearly four assists per game. If he was on Ohio State’s team last year, it would have made him the leading assist man — even above CJ Walker.

But let me float this crazy idea out to you: Justin Ahrens.

If Seth Towns is out, Ahrens is the best three-point shooter on the team. Heck, even with a healthy Towns, Ahrens may be the best shooter on the team. Ahrens shot 40.4% from beyond the arc last season, third on the team behind the Wesson brothers. While he’s very much a one-dimensional player (57 of his 62 shots last year were three-pointers), that one dimension is to shoot the damn lights out for as long as you leave him in the game.

Due to injuries towards the tail end of the 2018-2019 season, Holtmann was forced to thrust Ahrens into the starting lineup for a handful of games. In one of those games, a home matchup vs Iowa on Feb. 26, a then-freshman Ahrens exploded for 29 points on 7-11 shooting, including 6-for-10 from three-point range and a perfect 9-for-9 at the free throw line. It was a career high, and he has only scored in double-digits twice since then.

The logic behind starting Ahrens is simple. Give your best shooter an opportunity to contribute early before pulling him for your “traditional” starter. Maybe give him the first five to seven minutes before pulling him for Sueing or Sotos, who are able to contribute in more ways than Ahrens can. But to start the game, why not give him a chance?

We know exactly what we’re getting (and not getting) with Ahrens. If he gets the ball and has space to shoot, he’s going to chuck it. Odds are, he’s going to make a lot of those, especially when he’s able to spot up and shoot. He won’t turn the ball over either, but that has more to do with his role as a spot shooter than his ballhandling abilities. And while his defense is nothing to write home about, it also isn’t that atrocious that we should be afraid of him getting embarrassed by Illinois State or Alabama A&M.

Ahrens isn’t going to pull down many rebounds, but at 6-foot-5 he could and should grab more than his career average of 1.5 per game. That number would be much higher if he logged more minutes, as he has yet to average more than 10.1 minutes in a full season so far. In fact, Ahrens has played less than 20 minutes in 21 straight games. The last time he played 20+ minutes was in a 90-57 win over Morgan State on Nov. 29, 2019.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Another reason we can feel confident starting Ahrens for the first few games is the weakness of the Buckeyes’ schedule to start the season. Ohio State will face Illinois State, UMass-Lowell, Morehead State, and Alabama A&M to start the season. Those four teams combined to go 44-81 last season, which equates to an absolutely putrid .352 winning percentage.

The highest KenPom ranking of that group belongs to UMass-Lowell at 234. Even Ohio State’s opponent in the Big Ten/ACC challenge, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, are only No. 80 according to KenPom, sitting just below the likes of Furman (78) and Western Kentucky (79). The Buckeyes, in comparison, start the season at No. 10 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings.

So again I ask, why not? The worst case scenario would be Ahrens missing the few shots he gets, and is subbed out by the 16:00 mark. No harm nor foul in trying to get one of your best shooters in rhythm to start the season. But the best case scenario is where he gives Chris Holtmann 8-10 points for the first few games of the season until Towns returns, and then returns to the bench for the rest of the season.

But once you heat him up, a la Kam Williams, that confidence should carry over to the rest of the season. A confident and productive Ahrens coming off the bench would be huge for a team that has some lurking injury concerns, none of which belong to him.

Ahrens isn’t a starter for this team when everyone is healthy. The 2020-2021 Ohio State men’s basketball team may be Chris Holtmann’s most talented, and that means Ahrens is going to fall a bit lower on the totem pole, despite his experience. There will be times this year when younger players — even the freshmen — may check in before Ahrens. That is all the more reason that the Ohio State coaching staff should try to get him involved as often as possible in the first few games, so that when his name is called in bigger ones, he’s ready.

You may call it crazy, but I call it smart and fun. Super fun, actually.