1,003 days. That’s how long it has been since Seth Towns last played in a college basketball game. That’s how many days it has been since he hobbled off the court with a knee injury against Penn in the 2018 Ivy League title game — and he has not played since. Two surgeries and endless months of rehab later, Towns is ready to take the floor again, albeit for a different school: the one he grew up watching.
Towns announced his transfer to Ohio State in March, but very little was mentioned at the time about his knee or if he’d be ready to play when the season began. At the time, we really didn’t even know if there would be a season, as COVID had just cancelled the NCAA Tournament for the first time in its 81-year history.
However, as it became more and more apparent that college basketball would in fact be played this year, it was revealed that Towns’ knee was not as healed as they expected, and he would miss “some time”. His expected return date was anywhere from early December to mid-January, so nobody really knew how much Seth Towns we’d be seeing.
Until last week.
Leading up to the Alabama A&M game (that was ultimately cancelled), Chris Holtmann told the media that Towns could “possibly” play, but it would depend how he felt after back-to-back days of practice and the pregame shoot around. That game was cancelled due to COVID cases within the A&M program, which gives Towns an additional three days to practice.
Will Towns play for certain on Tuesday night? No, there’s been no indication of that from Towns or Holtmann. But barring any setbacks, it looks like the Columbus native will don the scarlet and gray for the first time “very soon.”
While that’s exciting as hell, I wanted to set some guidelines for fans — myself included — of what to expect (and not expect) from Towns when he first checks in for the Buckeyes. By the end of the season he may be the best player on this roster. But for now, we probably need to temper our expectations and let an extremely talented player get his feet beneath him again.
So what can we expect from Towns? And what should we not expect? Well...
What we can expect from Towns:
1) To be Ohio State’s best all-around scorer
At 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds, Towns is big enough to score in the low post but can also step outside and knock down the triple. With a career three-point percentage of 41.9%, he’s one of the two best shooters on the team alongside Justin Ahrens. But Ahrens is not even in the same zip code as Towns when it comes to scoring down low and from mid-range. Towns is a matchup nightmare for defenses, and the different ways he’ll be used by Holtmann this season are still unknown.
Just the possibility of having Towns available will give opposing coaches headaches for the next week or two. You can’t afford to not plan for him, even if it’s only a 50/50 shot he plays. If Towns steps onto the court tonight against Mike Brey’s team and he didn’t prepare his guys for the possibility of the former Ivy League Player of the Year, they’re going to have some problems. He’s a complete wild card, and until his availability is set in stone, every team moving forward will be forced to formulate a gameplan with the assumption he is playing.
2) To be a team leader
This is Towns’ fifth year of college, even though it’s only his third year playing basketball. Those other two seasons were spent rehabbing knee surgeries at Harvard, supporting his teammates from the bench. The only tool he could use during those two years? His voice.
There are guys on this team with more on-court experience than Towns, but he’s spent the most time out of anybody on this roster (along with Walker) around the sport itself. He’s had some high moments (Ivy League all-conference, POY, etc.), but he’s also hit rock bottom, missing almost three calendar years now with his knee issues. I’m not sure if he ever doubted that he’d come back, but if I was in his shoes I certainly would have. That’s a long time to commit to rehabbing an injury, with no guarantee you’ll be 100% again. Because of the challenges he’s overcome and the character he’s already shown just during his nine months in the program, I have high expectations for him as a leader.
3) To come off the bench initially
This is kind of a no-brainer, but I do not expect Seth Towns to get plugged into the starting lineup right from the get-go. If he does start, there’s no way he plays more than 20-25 minutes per game in the early going. Holtmann has made it clear that Towns’ knee still isn’t 100% back to normal. Some days he has good days, and some days he goes through it a little bit. Ohio State is going to need him to have mostly good days in February and March, so there’s no reason to grind him down right now.
Towns is going to eat into Justice Sueing, Kyle Young, and E.J. Liddell’s minutes off the bench, and hopefully he gets around 20 minutes per game over the first few weeks. It’s going to be a headache for opposing teams to wonder when the Buckeyes are going to bring Towns in off the bench, who most people consider to be their most talented player.
What we should not expect from Towns:
1) To be the same player he was at Harvard two years ago
A lot has changed for Towns since March 11, 2018. He’s had not one, but two knee surgeries. He hasn’t played live basketball in over two years. And he transferred back to his hometown school, who happens to play in the toughest conference in college basketball.
With all that considered, we can not expect him to score 16 points per game. Not only is he physically a different player than he was two years ago, but the competition he’ll be facing is going to be much tougher too.
No offense to the Ivy League, but the B1G is a completely different beast. The talent and physicality of the Ivy League pale in comparison to the Big Ten Conference. He’s going to get tired faster and be defended tighter than he was when he played at Harvard. He’s also not going to be relied on as heavily as he was a few years ago, because well, Ohio State is a better basketball team than Harvard, and has more weapons. It won’t all be on his shoulders anymore.
He’s going to be good, but please don’t use his two years at Harvard as a benchmark for what to expect.
2) To be an above average defender
This is not meant to be a slight to Towns, who by all accounts was a fine defensive player at Harvard. But if you’ve ever experienced a lower-body injury, you know that even once you’re recovered, you never quite trust your legs the way you did before the injury.
The last part of Towns game that is going to catch up will be his defense. If what Holtmann has said is still true, then Towns’ knee does have some days where it’s a little creaky. He’ll get there, but his lateral quickness to slide over to a defender or jump around a screen won’t be what it once was. His leaping ability to get up and block shots won’t quite be there either. Towns’ value is mostly going to be on the offensive end. His defense is going to take a bit more time.
3) To play in every single game once he does return
Last week, Chris Holtmann said that he had absolutely no predictions or preconceived notions for Towns when he returns. He was honest because he’s never coached a player who has missed this much time (about 33 months) and then returned to playing.
He might take a few more games to be ready, or he may play tonight vs Notre Dame. Once he returns, he could play the final twenty-some games without a hitch, and earn All-Big Ten honors at the end of the year. More likely though, there’ll be some bumps along the way.
If there’s a road game against Northwestern wedged in between two tough games, don’t be shocked if Towns gets a “maintenance” day to rest. If there are any flare-ups with the knee throughout the season, he could miss a game or two here and there. There’s not much precedent for a player who misses two straight seasons, just like there’s no precedent for playing college basketball during a pandemic. We’re all figuring this out as we go, including Towns and Ohio State’s coaching staff.