Justin Ahrens needs a slump buster... in the form of a game where he torches the nets, and goes something like 6-for-8 from behind the arc. Shooting is - and has been - his calling card, but he has struggled mightily since the Towson game in early December. Granted, Ahrens has already surpassed his career high(s) for free throw attempts and assists in a season (he should also set a new career best for rebounds in the next few games), but the Buckeyes need more from him as a shooting threat. Otherwise, he is creeping closer and closer to having a negative overall impact for Chris Holtmann’s team.
Ahrens is a spacer for E.J. Liddell, Zed Key, and Kyle Young, and should be a kick-out option for Jamari Wheeler, Malaki Branham, or Meechie Johnson. However, if he is not producing offensively, his improved defense is not enough to continue playing him 27 minutes per game — not with a deep team and other talented options. Coach Holtmann is running out of time to tweak his rotation significantly, especially with Covid wreaking havoc on the Buckeyes’ schedule.
Now, I’m not one to second-guess or doubt Holtmann. I think Ohio State is fortunate to have a coach of his caliber, and I generally believe that he is underrated. That being said, perhaps the uptick in minutes is why Ahrens is struggling. It might be best to have him come off the bench, because not every player is built for consistent starter minutes. It doesn’t make them any less effective — look at NBA Sixth Man of the Year candidates like Tyler Herro or Jordan Clarkson. Some guys are just “heat check” guys: best in shorter spurts, against certain matchups — and the sharpshooter from Versailles, Ohio seems to be one of those guys.
By year, he averaged 10, 10, and 18 minutes per game, prior to the 2021-22 season. He currently sits at 26.6 MPG through 16 contests. So Ahrens’ increased workload certainly seems to have had a negative impact on his efficiency. It’s also entirely possible that he’s just mired in a cold streak. We have seen him warm up before, but those memories are getting further and further in the rearview.
Justin Ahrens' (@ahrensjustin12) previous career-high was nine. Add 20 to that and you have his total in Tuesday's Buckeye win.— Ohio State on BTN (@OhioStateOnBTN) February 27, 2019
Add 20 to Iowa's total points tonight and you have @OhioStateHoops' final score. pic.twitter.com/E3yzhDiqZf
Regardless of why Ahrens is struggling, I don’t see any reason why the Buckeyes should not be willing to at least experiment with the rotation... even if that experiment only lasts a game or two. There are deserving players further down the roster, namely Eugene Brown. Brown is a talented sophomore, and we may have witnessed a mini-breakout during OSU’s last two games.
The former three-star recruit (four, depending on the service) out of Georgia set a career high with 14 points against IUPUI, and added six in 18 minutes against a tough Penn State team. His defense alone, which has been on display all season, should lend itself to an increase in minutes. He is currently averaging just 11.2 MPG. And it’s not as if Brown is ill-equipped to handle the moment. He played in 29 games as a true freshman, and had numerous offers coming out of high school — including one from Auburn, the current #1 team in the country. It is time to let the young wing spread his own.
If the coaching staff is not ready to thrust Brown into a larger role, maybe they are willing to trust another seasoned vet... and no, I am not talking about Joey Brunk. Call me crazy, but I would like to see more of Cedric Russell. The 6’2” volume shooter has not come anywhere close to matching the scoring ability he showcased at Louisiana, but if he catches fire, he can be a real difference maker. On four separate occasions, Russell has connected on three or more three-pointers. The Buckeyes are 4-0 in those games, two of which were big wins over Duke and Wisconsin. Furthermore, Russell is shooting 52% from behind the arc!
Yes, he has been borderline awful on defense, and he will never be viewed as a generous player, but Ced Russ gets buckets. At this point, the only difference between him and Ahrens, is four inches of height. Russell’s role might be matchup-dependent due to his lack of size, but it’s worth a shot, right? The former Rajun Cajun did average 17.7 PPG last year — a number which Ahrens has topped only once in the last three seasons. If the current starter continues to struggle, it might be time to let the veteran transfer cook... Within reason, of course. We’re still trying to hold teams under 100 points.
So it sounds like I am out on Ahrens, right? Actually, the exact opposite is true. I think I have been a bigger fan of his than most, and I’m hopeful that he returns to form. His 29-point outburst as a freshman against Iowa will go down as one of the best heat check moments in the last 20 years — and I hope he can replicate it at least one more time as a senior. But loyalty must not get in the way of winning games. That is why Nick Saban benched Jalen Hurts for Tua Tagovailoa during a CFP National Championship game. It’s why veteran free agents are brought in to replace youngsters, and rookies are then drafted to replace those same vets. Feelings are great, but good vibes don’t win games. Chris Holtmann needs to put the best players on the court, and I firmly believe that he will. Ahrens deserves another game or two, but his time to right the ship is running out.