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Column: In Ohio State’s January slump, it’s time to make changes to the starting lineup

When Justin Ahrens is hot, he is one of the best shooters in the game, but when he’s not, he can be a liability.

Ohio State v Wisconsin
Wisconsin’s Brad Davison shoots over Justin Ahrens in Big Ten play.
Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

Watching the No. 16-ranked Buckeyes lose to No. 13 Wisconsin on Thursday night, I came to a reluctant conclusion. Ohio State plays better with a lineup on the floor that doesn’t include Justin Ahrens. I’m reluctant because Ahrens is a senior. He’s played a lot during his four years as a Buckeye, and he’s been a popular player with fans and teammates. I’m wondering, though, if, given the current roster, he may be less valuable than he was a year or two ago.

Against the Badgers, Ahrens did a few good things. Early on, he dished a nice ball to E.J. Liddell underneath for an easy bucket (his only assist). He made his first two-point shot of the season (in the 14th game!). He looked good cheering his teammates on from the Buckeye bench.

On the negative side, Brad Davison blew by him for a layup as if he weren’t there; Ahrens caught him just in time to foul him and make it a three-point play. Late in the second half, the Buckeyes made a run with Ahrens sitting. He re-entered the game with about 5:00 left and quickly lost the ball with a costly turnover.

Ahrens finally hit a three-pointer, with about two minutes left, but it was too late. The Bucks lost by ten. Justin Ahrens played 28 minutes and scored five points. He was 2/5 shooting, 1/4 from behind the arc. To his credit, he did collect four rebounds. But he was not one of the top five Ohio State players. And hasn’t been for some time.

Does Ahrens deserve his extended playing time?

During the football season, there was quite a bit of discussion about “putting the best players on the field.” The choice was between talented newcomers and veterans who had put in their time, sat patiently on the bench, and now expected their share of snaps. Maybe that’s the case with Ahrens. His minutes per game have climbed: 9.6 minutes in his freshman season 2018-19 (good for ninth on the team); 10.1 minutes in 2019-20 (again, ninth most); 18.3 minutes last year (sixth most on the team); and 26.9 minutes this year (third most). Has he gotten better each year? Has his contribution to the team increased each year? Or has he simply paid his dues and is now collecting his reward?

What position does he play?

At 6-6, Ahrens has been listed as a “forward” for each of his four Buckeye years. But he’s never really done the things that forwards typically do. Until this year, with his increased minutes, he’s never averaged even two rebounds per game; this year, he’s at three per game – still not many, given how much he’s in the game. And, he’s not very good at defending down low players.

There’s not much difference between a small forward and a shooting guard, and my guess is that Ahrens is called a forward because he doesn’t really do the things that we expect guards (at either of the positions) to do: cover other guards, handle the ball in the backcourt, dish the ball off, drive to the basket. Even this year, Ahrens is averaging only a little over one assist per game.

In my opinion, Ahrens is a defensive liability whenever he’s on the floor. He’s not very quick. He’s not strong enough to fight through screens. And without providing assists or rebounds, we’re left with Ahrens’s one virtue – his shooting.

Do the Buckeyes need Ahrens’ three-point shooting?

Justin Ahrens is a shooter. A pure shooter. That’s what he’s in the game for, and that’s what he does when he’s in the game. To be more specific, he’s a long-range shooter, a three-point specialist. Ahrens has always made about 40% of his treys. As a freshman, his .388% was second on the Buckeyes’ team. In 2019-20, his .404 was the third best on the squad. Last year, Ahrens improved his 3-point percentage to .425, behind only Kyle Young and rookie Meechie Johnson.

So, what’s changed this year? For one thing, Ahrens’s shooting percentage from behind the arc is the lowest of his career at .372, and heading south. Johnson (.450) is still shooting better than Ahrens from long distance. And so are a couple of the new guys – Malaki Branham (.394), and Cedric Russell (.455). Even E.J. Liddell, after his work against the Badgers, is outshooting Ahrens from 3-point range, at a .389 mark. Justin Ahrens is now fifth best 3-point shooter, slightly ahead of Young (.370) and Wheeler (.341), both of whom were ahead of him before their bad shooting in Madison.

Is Ahrens, then, an asset, or a liability? Well, he can certainly give some needed rests to teammates, without really doing much harm. He can score. But the Buckeyes don’t really need another long-range bomber this year. Their weakness is inside, and Ahrens doesn’t provide any help in the paint. He doesn’t score inside, and he is sixth on the team in rebounding. Clearly, when Justice Suing returns to action, Ahrens will sit more. But what about the meantime?

Lineup suggestions

I suggest a couple of possibilities. The most obvious change would be to start Kyle Young instead of Ahrens. Young is a much stronger rebounder, a better defender, and can score inside. Somewhat surprisingly, he’s also just as good a shooter as Ahrens. If Young is already in a starting role (as he was against Northwestern, but not against Wisconsin), then Zed Key could return to his starting forward position. He brings solid rebounding, pretty good interior defense, and an inside scoring presence. Both Young and Key played well against Wisconsin, I thought (though, clearly, Key needs stay after practice and shoot 100 free throws). Alternatively, the Bucks could go with a three-guard configuration. With any two out of Liddell, Young, and Key on the court, Ohio State could put three guards out there with them. Wheeler’s done a really good job on defense and in running the offense from the point. Branham seems now to have found the range and needs to see his minutes increase. Both Branham and Wheeler can to the basket and score. Johnson, Russell, and Eugene Brown III have all been contributors too and deserve playing time. Even Jimmy Sotos did OK on Thursday night.

Tough decisions

As I said at the start, I know that Justin Ahrens is a popular player, that he’s put in his time and that he works hard. The current makeup of the basketball roster, however, has rendered Ahrens somewhat redundant. The Buckeyes are a deep team and simply no longer really need what he has to offer. And what they do need – an inside game and rebounding, he seems incapable of providing. Ahrens has been pushed aside by the shooting of the new guys and the newly acquired outside shooting touch of E.J. Liddell.

Chris Holtmann has some tough decisions ahead. Last season, the Buckeyes finished disappointingly. This year’s club is a veteran squad. I know that I’ve been talking about “new guys,” but Wheeler and Russell are both experienced transfers. This is also likely the last year for Young and Liddell. It’s the year, therefore, to go deep in the NCAA tournament. If Holtmann wants to take a serious shot, he’s got to put his best players on the court. He doesn’t need five shooters standing around the arc. He probably doesn’t need Justin Ahrens to play as much as he has been.