Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.
In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.
This week’s topic: Best performance by an Ohio State freshman
Josh’s Take: Justin Ahrens vs. Iowa (2019)
I feel pretty fortunate to have been around for a number of impressive performances by Ohio State freshmen. I actually wrote about this in January, and highlighted the freshman seasons of men’s players Kosta Koufos, Mike Conley, Jared Sullinger, D’Angelo Russell, and Greg Oden. Those all occurred after the turn of the 21st century. Had I wanted to dig a little further back in my old, deteriorating memory, I would have included Michael Redd’s breakout in 1997-98. His team only went 8-22, but Redd became an instant star and certified bucket-getter.
On the women’s side, Katie Smith immediately comes to mind. I was a little too young to remember the specifics of her career, but I recall bits and pieces about her first season: Big Ten title, NCAA championship game appearance, 18 PPG. It was truly one of the best in OSU history. 2007-08 Jantel Lavender was special too. 18 and 10 right out of the gate.
Well, Malaki Branham has suddenly vaulted himself into the same conversation. He probably came on a little too late for me to put him up there with the former Buckeyes I already mentioned — and a semi-clunker against Maryland won’t help his case — but this season is far from over, so he has plenty of opportunity to change my mind. A few of his recent games have been otherworldly, and those single-game performances are what got Gene and I (mostly Gene) thinking.
I wanted to go off-script here. I love the random, out-of-nowhere performances. I love crazy upsets, buzzer beaters, you name it. It’s great when a phenom like D’Angelo Russell goes off for a triple-double, but what about the shocking surprises? What about when a seldom-used freshman puts up nearly 40 percent of his total season output, and helps the Buckeyes upset a ranked opponent at home? Gene, I give you: The Justin Ahrens Game.
Ahrens played sparingly throughout the first four(ish) months of the 2018-19 season. He also played sparingly at the end of the season, when games mattered most. He just wasn’t a regular contributor. As a talented, but not incredibly sought-after freshman, his lack of playing time and production was nothing out of the ordinary. But Chris Holtmann was experimenting with lineups (and managing injuries) all season, so during a five-game stretch in late February/early March, Ahrens earned about 25 minutes per game and randomly came up with the best performance of his career.
With C.J. Jackson out, Ahrens received his first start and extended playing time of the season on Feb. 19. Thinking back, I’m not sure why C.J. being out led to a major increase in Ahrens’ minutes, but here we are. The freshman from Versailles, Ohio set a career-high with nine points, but the Buckeyes lost at Maryland. I assumed it was a solid one-off performance, and roughly one week and 20 minutes later, I was trending towards being correct.
At home against Iowa on Feb. 26, Ahrens received the nod once again, and went 1-of-4 in the first half (including 0-for-3 from beyond the arc). The Buckeyes held a small lead, so things were going well enough. Unexpectedly, the second half of that game became Justin Ahrens’ masterpiece. And to this day, I’m still not sure how it happened.
Ahrens went absolutely nuclear on the Hawkeyes. He nailed two threes in the first five minutes of the half to help Ohio State open up a nine-point lead. From there, you could tell he was starting to feel it. At about the halfway mark, Ahrens took it up a notch. In just over a minute of game action, the sharpshooter hit back-to-back threes, and was fouled during another attempt, causing Buckeye fans to lose their collective minds.
When Iowa cut the large deficit down to 12 points a few minutes later, Ahrens answered the bell once again. He hit another three-pointer, and the Hawkeyes responded by racking up technicals. Fran and Connor McCaffery were both whistled for arguing calls, and Ahrens converted all four freebies. The game was all but over by that point, and I vividly remember The Schott going nuts. Ahrens was NBA Jam-level hot, and Iowa had melted down.
All told, Ahrens hit seven threes during the second-half blowout. He scored 25 after the break, and was nearly perfect shooting the ball. He didn’t single-handedly take down the Hawkeyes, but he led the charge. His play afterwards made this performance even more shocking.
Ahrens put up a goose egg in Ohio State’s next game. He scored 12 total points in the two after that, and then played a total of 10 minutes during OSU’s conference and NCAA tournament games. From hero to zero — literally. Ahrens has had a few strong performances since, but nothing resembling the Iowa game. His current struggles only add to the surprise factor of that one. If you had never watched OSU before this season, and I told you that Justin Ahrens once turned into Larry Bird for 20 minutes as a freshman, would you believe me?
And I’m still holding out hope for an encore. Wouldn’t it be awesome to see Ahrens catch fire and give Chris Holtmann a signature NCAA Tournament victory? I’m certainly rooting for it. But if it never happens, we’ll always have Feb. 26, 2019. The Justin Ahrens Game.
Gene’s Take: D’Angelo Russell vs. Northwestern (2015)
As Josh said, the recent breakout performances of Malaki Branham — Sunday’s game against Maryland notwithstanding — are what really brought about this topic. While Branham still led the team in points against the Terps, he did so with just 13 points as the Buckeyes really struggled to shoot the rock as a whole. However, before this latest road loss, the freshman phenom had been absolutely nutty. We saw he had it in him with his career-high 35 points against Nebraska, but he really turned in up a notch this past week.
Against Iowa and Indiana, Branham put up 22 and 27 points, respectively. He did so shooting 9-of-13 from the floor in both games, with the only different being at the free throw line, where he was a perfect 8-for-8 against the Hoosiers. The four-star freshman out of St. Vincent-St. Mary looked dominant over that two-game stretch, and quickly played his way into a potential NBA Draft pick in just year one. While it was tempting to pick Branham’s Indiana performance for this piece, I had to go back to one spectacular outing which in my mind is far above the rest in terms of Ohio State freshman balling out.
Admittedly, I didn’t go to a ton of Ohio State basketball games during my freshman year in Columbus during the 2014-15 season. At the time, the Buckeyes weren’t very good, and what little money I had was going towards season tickets for the football team. However, I did make it a goal to get out to a few games to make sure I caught a glimpse of freshman phenom D’Angelo Russell, who would clearly be off to the league after just one season at Ohio State.
The five-star prospect was incredible during his time in Scarlet and Gray, and was largely a one-man show without a ton of talent around him. He led the Buckeyes that year with 19.3 points per game to go along with 5.7 rebounds and five assists per game — both of which were also team-highs. He almost single-handedly willed his team to a win over VCU in the first round of the NCAA Tournament with his 28-point outing, but Russell went cold against Arizona in the second round as Ohio State suffered an early exit.
I got to see a handful of Russell’s game in person that season, and his performance against Purdue on March 1 definitely enters my mind as my favorite. Trailing 35-23 at the break, the Buckeyes stormed back and outscored the Boilermakers 42-26 in the second half to come away with a 65-61 victory, led by Russell’s 28 points and seven boards. However, while it was an incredible performance and an exciting comeback to witness from the student section, it wasn’t the best performance by Russell that season.
That came on the road against Northwestern on Jan. 22, 2015. In that game against the Wildcats, Russell scored a career-high 33 points in what was a hotly contested 69-67 win for the Buckeyes. The star freshman hit on a spectacular 12-of-17 shots from the field, and drilled a whopping six three-pointers, including a bunch of key makes down the stretch. He also pulled in a team-high seven boards and dished six assists. Overall, Russell would wind up scoring 13 of Ohio State’s final 15 points as he earned his team the W in Evanston.
One of the most memorable plays from that game was not Russell scoring the rock however, but one of those assists. Standing well outside the arc, Russell held the ball out with one hand before making a ridiculous bounce pass into the paint that Sam Thompson easily finished for a dunk. To this day it is still one of the best passes I've seen in college basketball. Overall, definitely the best performance I have seen by an Ohio State freshman — even if it is taking the easy way out!