Most freshmen, including some of Ohio State’s first-year players, enjoy offense more than other parts of the game. They like to shoot and score, and it’s understandable. Offense comes easy to those who have dominated the ball throughout their youth and can immediately translate to the college game.
But Luther Muhammad, a fellow freshman guard, has done the math. He’s made his calculation and he chooses to focus his energy primarily on defense. It’s his passion.
“Everyone who plays basketball likes to score, but what is scoring if your guy is also scoring?” Muhammad said. “It's better when you score and also you're getting a stop and your man's not scoring, because if you score 20 and your man scores 20, you really ain't score.”
Muhammad didn’t score 20 points on Saturday in Ohio State’s 107-61 victory against Purdue Fort Wayne on Saturday. He had a respectable 12 points, making 4-of-8 shots, and added a pair of assists.
“He's ready to take on a challenge against a really good player. It's his identity.”– Chris Holtmann
He made his biggest impact on the defensive end of the court, shadowing John Konchar, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound guard who has been first-team All-Summit League the past three seasons. Konchar, who entered the game averaging 21 points per game, managed just 13 points in 37 minutes. He hit just 6-of-15 shots, including 1-of-4 3-pointers, and had three turnovers.
“He was terrific,” Holtmann said of Muhammad's defense. “He was important on him because he just made him work, moved his feet, made him earn it.”
When Holtmann was recruiting Muhammad, he often saw the defensive effort. He remembers watching the 6-foot-3, 185-pound freshman play games for his AAU team at 8 a.m. with the same heightened intensity usually reserved premier matchups.
Before too long, Holtmann was sold, and told assistant coach Mike Schrage that Ohio State has “got to get him.”
“His team awareness has to grow and get better, but he is who we recruited in the sense of we fell in love with the kid when we recruited him because what we saw today is who he is,” Holtmann said. “He's ready to take on a challenge against a really good player. It's his identity.”
Muhammad knows that. He takes pride in it. He wants to guard the best player on the other team, and because he might be Ohio State’s best one-on-one perimeter defender even though he’s played just two games at the collegiate level, he’ll have many chances to do so.
The opportunity excites Muhammad, who not long ago made headlines in high school by shutting down Immanuel Quickley, a five-star recruit who is now a freshman point guard for the Kentucky Wildcats.
“Now, you can 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've just got to be ready all the time.”
At times, Muhammad can let his demeanor works against himself.
In the season-opening win against Cincinnati a few days ago, Muhammad got a technical foul. Holtmann told him to back off Konchar at one point on Sunday. That’s OK, though, because that’s just who he is.
“I just don't want him to average a technical a game,” Holtmann said with a slight chuckle.
Holtmann said Muhammad has to improve his defensive awareness with the entire team, which will come with time. He’s not the only player who Holtmann would say that about.
But in the meantime, the Buckeyes’ defense has been extraordinarily sound. Sure, it was against a young Purdue Fort Wayne team, but they held the Mastodons to 33.8 percent shooting from the field. Purdue Fort Wayne, a proficient team from beyond the arc, hit just 6-of-27 3-pointers.
“Chris has got the Buckeyes playing really good defense right now,” Purdue Fort Wayne head coach Jon Coffman said. “You play that kind of defense, I mean I know it's only a couple games in, but you're going to have a lot of success. I'll attribute our lack of success in the second half to what Ohio State did today. They're going to be a really good team. Really, really good team. Defensively, you saw it a couple days ago against Cincinnati, who's won 61 games in the last two years.”
In the second half, Purdue Fort Wayne missed all 11 of its 3-point attempts.
“I need to buy whatever Chris sold his team at halftime because that would be great to get a team to shoot that well and defend that well in the second half,” Coffman said.
It’s early in the season and Ohio State’s two wins have come against Cincinnati – a team not known for an explosive offense – and Purdue Fort Wayne – a good offensive team, but one that plays in a smaller conference. Still, the Buckeyes have shown impressive determination on defense, which has led to success shutting teams down in back-to-back games.
Muhammad has affected top-level scorers. Andre Wesson, Musa Jallow, Kyle Young and C.J. Jackson have flashed on defense. Kaleb Wesson has improved defending in the post.
Coffman, having just watched his team play against the Buckeyes, harped on Holtmann’s “committed group” playing defense. Over and over, he praised how well the team plays together. Ohio State has to maintain – and increase, once Big Ten play begins – this level of defense, but it’s a positive sign for the Buckeyes just two games into the season.
“We work as one, and we work as one to work as one,” C.J. Jackson said. “We had a couple miscues that kind of can't happen just throughout the year, especially as we play a conference schedule. I think we can get a lot better defensively communicating-wise and just switching better, ball screens. Kind of everything. Keeping the ball in front. It just goes all around.”