Luther Muhammad knows he is a good basketball player.
In the middle of a fastbreak offensive possession, the Ohio State freshman guard weaved his way through Purdue-Fort Wayne defenders, throwing up a feather-touch layup for the score. Muhammad immediately turned around to his assignment, Mastodons redshirt senior guard John Konchar, with a smirk on his face, nodding his head in approval of his actions and mockingly clapping his hands as he crossed midcourt.
Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann has seen this before.
“When we saw him in [Amateur Athletic Union camps], we’d have an 8 a.m. game and Luther Muhammad would be out there doing that at an 8 a.m. game, the only guy on both teams with that personality,” Holtmann said. “The only guy. 8 a.m. game. Doing that.”
This is what made Muhammad so important for Holtmann to get in his first recruiting class at Ohio State: a confident and fearless player who brings confidence and life to the program. A sign of the future.
But for most players, this confidence comes in the form of offense, doing what Ohio State freshman guard Duane Washington Jr. did — sending an imaginary bow-and-arrow into the crowd after hitting consecutive 3s at the end of the first half against the Mastodons.
Muhammad’s different. His joy comes when he’s playing one-on-one defense against Konchar, making him work for a basket.
It’s defense that defines Muhammad. It’s become his identity.
“Everyone who plays basketball likes to score. But what is scoring if your guy’s also scoring?” Muhammad said. “I just feel like it’s better when you score and also you get a stop, your man’s not scoring because if you score 20 and your man scores 20, you really ain’t scoring.”
Muhammad said this is the mentality with which he grew up, something he lives by based on how he learned to play basketball.
This is what separated him from the pack for Holtmann, what made the head coach desperately want to secure a commitment from Muhammad.
“He is who we recruited in the sense of we fell in love with the kid when we recruited him because what you saw today is who he is. He is ready to take on a challenge against a really good player. It’s his identity,” Holtmann said. “He is a more-than-capable offensive player, but that’s why we chased him every day like we did because we knew how important it was going to be for us.”
Holtmann has always been a defense-first coach. When establishing the team identity, the defensive strategy has always been the primary focus with offense coming later.
Purdue-Fort Wayne head coach Jon Coffman said Holtmann’s team played a defense in which he felt every player had bought into something bigger than himself. It was a cohesion, a common goal that made the defense so ruthless, the Mastodons head coach said.
This was the mentality for Muhammad all along. But having the mentality is one thing. The other is actually performing against collegiate athletes, knowing he is not in high school anymore.
“Now, you could be defending a draft pick rather than just defending a Top 100 player that’s an unfinished product,” Muhammad said. “It’s definitely more detailed and you just have to be ready all the time.”
Muhammad said it is all about preparation, paying attention to detail and utilizing the scout team, which was integral to Ohio State’s success in its home opener.
Through the first two games of the season, Ohio State has allowed opponents to shoot 30.7 percent from the field, giving up 22.6 percent of three-point shots attempted.
Senior guard C.J. Jackson said defense has been the team’s main priority early in the season.
“It’s pride on the defensive end,” Jackson said. “We work as one and we work every day to work as one.”
But it is Muhammad’s confidence, knowing he’s going to make it difficult on an opponent, that is carrying the team through two games. And for Ohio State, it’s contagious.
Holtmann just has one thing to ask of his freshman guard.
“I just don’t want him to average a technical a game.”