All of January, Ohio State had trouble scoring and knocking down consistent 3s — problems especially deflating for a team whose leading scorer needs the ball down low in a physical Big Ten conference.
But this is February, and Justin Ahrens is coming alive.
Hampered by a back injury at the start of the season, the sophomore forward’s recent uptick in minutes reflects a player who’s back to relative health — and he’s making the most of his opportunities.
“He’s not felt healthy, really through December. We saw it in practice,” head coach Chris Holtmann said. “He’s added weight. He’s getting healthier. He’s practicing better. He’s been on the scout team the last three weeks and been able to come in and still play 15 minutes a game and understand how we’re doing things.”
Ahrens scored 12 points on 4-of-5 from 3 against Northwestern this past Sunday — his most points since a 29-point outburst against Iowa a year ago.
The rare Ahrens sighting may have slipped under the radar as yet another aberration during an otherwise disappointing season, if it weren’t for his encore performance against Indiana Sunday.
The night before the noon matchup, Ohio State freshman guard D.J. Carton announced he would temporarily step away from the program to deal with ongoing mental health issues.
Without their third-leading scorer, the Buckeyes would need a boost on the offensive end to dispatch of an Indiana team to which they lost three weeks ago.
Ahrens answered the call to action, knocking down three straight long-range bombs in the second half during a stretch that blew the lid off the Schottenstein Center and all but started the buses for the Hoosiers.
“You can’t leave Justin. He’s gonna kill you,” junior forward Kaleb Wesson said. “That’s what he did today — he hit shots for us and that was big.”
The 6-foot-5 wing finished with 11 points in 14 minutes, and with 23 total in the past two games, Ahrens has scored six more than his previous 10 performances combined for the Buckeyes.
The added scoring from Ahrens, who had been averaging just more than three points per contest entering Saturday, is especially essential for a Buckeye team that hasn’t gotten consistent shot-making out of two of its shooting guards.
Sophomore guards Duane Washington and Luther Muhammad combined to shoot 3-for-17 against Indiana, and Muhammad has scored in double digits just once since mid-December.
Muhammad hasn’t shot better than .333 from the field since Dec. 21, and Washington has shot around 34 percent from the field in his past 10 games.
“Duane still took some quick ones — some bad ones — without probing the paint today,” Holtmann said. “I thought Luther took one or two.”
Ahrens had a shooting slump of his own to get through, though.
The 3-point specialist was hitting just 21 percent from deep through a 10-game stretch that spanned from the end of November to before tipoff at Northwestern this past Sunday. It was a span of time in which Ohio State received all eight of its losses this season.
In that stretch, though, Ahrens was mostly interjected in the lineup in marginal situations — minute-long periods here and there — and often at the end of halves or blowouts.
He came in at the 11:16 mark in the first half against Indiana, scoring a layup and grabbing three boards, but his mark wasn’t really felt until the next half.
From 8:37 to 6:09 remaining in the second, Ahrens scored nine straight Ohio State points on 3-for-3 from deep, taking a 12-point lead to a 19-point blowout.
“He’s gonna really have to compete and fight — he’s done that — and he’s a terrific shooter,” Holtmann said. “I mean he really is. And I think his cutting has helped us, too.”
The third look was a heat-check, deep behind the line on a catch-and-shoot from an assist by Kaleb Wesson.
Ahrens may have been hot, but he hasn’t earned quite enough leash with Holtmann to miss the next quick-trigger 3, though.
“The biggest thing for him — I’ve said this — is attention to detail defensively, which he struggled with as a freshman,” Holtmann said. “He’s not gonna go out there and be a better athlete than most of the people he plays against position-wise.”
If Ahrens can stay hot, it will have to continue to be in big spots against Big Ten opponents.
Ohio State travels to Michigan and Wisconsin next week before playing three ranked teams in the next four games after that.