Prior to last weekend, four-star shooting guard Keon Johnson had never been to Columbus, let alone Ohio State.
Largely based on a preexisting relationship he had with assistant coach Jake Diebler that began when he was being recruited to Vanderbilt, Johnson listed the Buckeyes as one of his three finalists, along with Tennessee and Virginia, in May. He finally made the awaited for trip to Columbus last weekend for an official visit. It's expected to be his final visit to any college.
Ohio State had only about 48 hours to impress Johnson, a native of Bell Buckle, Tennessee. He had already taken official visits to both Tennessee and Virginia, putting Chris Holtmann’s program in the rare position of making a simultaneous first and last impression before the impending Aug. 6 decision.
“It was actually a lot better than what I thought,” Johnson told Eleven Warriors. “I had never seen the facilities or the city at all, and so I was all in awe whenever I stepped foot on campus.”
Prior to Johnson’s visit, both recruiting experts and sources within the program indicated Tennessee was the favorite in his recruitment. All seven Crystal Ball projections on 247Sports were in favor of the Volunteers, and they remain in that direction.
However, Johnson says he has not yet made a decision between his three finalists. Whichever program lands the 6-foot-5, 180-pound combo guard will land the No. 31 overall recruit and one of the most athletic prospects in the class of 2020. Ohio State currently has one open scholarship for that cycle, and the coaches would certainly like Johnson to fill that spot.
“They see me as a very aggressive transition scorer,” Johnson said. “Coach Holtmann was like that's something that they're lacking in is someone to get it on the break and push it instead of being held up in the half-court offense.”
Ohio State has dealt with the extra obstacle of entering the picture later than both Virginia and Tennessee. The Volunteers offered him a scholarship in April 2018, and the Cavaliers extended an offer nearly a year ago. The Buckeyes didn’t offer the rising senior at The Webb School until May 1.
Still, Johnson disagrees with the notion that Holtmann’s staff has had to play from behind.
“I don't necessarily think they had a lot of ground to make up for,” Johnson said. “I mean, my mind is very wide open as far as my recruitment. A lot of people think distance is a factor, and distance isn't a factor.”
Johnson said distance isn’t an element of his decision because he and his family “feel that (Ohio State) can be trusted.”
Without Diebler, the Buckeyes wouldn’t currently be in this position. On nearly the assistant coach’s presence alone, Johnson named them a finalist. Naturally, Diebler played a major role in getting him on Ohio State’s campus and acclimated to the other coaches.
“Coach Diebler basically just brought me up from where he left off,” Johnson said. “He just wanted me to get a feel for the staff that was around him. I feel very comfortable about coach Holtmann and his staff.”
The visit began on Friday night when Johnson and his family had dinner with the coaches and staff members.
Johnson stayed busy on Saturday, meeting with multiple advisers and athletic director Gene Smith. He had a chance to learn more about the agriculture department, which houses his potential majors. Stemming from his passion for fishing, Johnson hopes to eventually raise fish for a living. He noted the academics as a positive takeaway from the visit.
“Ohio State's arms are very long across not only the country but the whole world,” Johnson said. “So even if basketball didn't work out, I feel like my education from the Ohio State University would help me in the long run.”
Duane Washington Jr., a rising sophomore guard, spent most of the weekend with Johnson. On Saturday, they went on a campus tour.
“We went to the library,” Johnson said. “We viewed the dorms as well. And then there's some building in the middle of campus and you can see – it's in the library – and you go upstairs and you can see all of campus.”
Johnson also met DJ Carton and E.J. Liddell while in Columbus.
“All of the guys on the team are great guys,” Johnson said. “Everybody's close with each other. You don't have one standing out.”
He wrapped Saturday up by heading to Holtmann’s house to have dinner with the Ohio State’s coaches and players.
“I actually had my whole family there,” Johnson said. “They pretty much showed the ins and outs of the program to each and every one of my family members.”
Johnson headed back to Tennessee on Sunday and said he didn’t immediately reflect on the visit with his family.
At some point in the next month, he’ll sit down with his parents to discuss the options and choose to attend Tennessee, Virginia or Ohio State. Though he will – and already has – given the decision much thought, he doesn’t have a complicated list of factors that will determine where he heads after graduating from high school.
“Trust,” Johnson said. “Somewhere where I can grow as a young man as well as spiritually. That's pretty much it.”
Diebler has earned Johnson’s trust, and Ohio State made progress during last weekend’s official visit.
The Buckeyes now have one month – and no more on-campus visits – to attempt to seal the deal before Johnson makes his decision.