Luther Muhammad chuckled at the question.
What was the biggest thing you learned from your freshman year?
He had a ready made answer.
“It's a very, very long season,” Muhammad said.
He knows that by learning it the hard way.
Beginning his first year at Ohio State as an opening-game starter, Muhammad shined in the first couple months of the 2018-19 season. His intensity and length translated on the defensive end, and he was a surprisingly efficient scorer with an adept outside shot. But then, as the Buckeyes entered the second half of the Big Ten schedule in February, his offense fell apart. In the final 13 games of the season, Muhammad didn’t score double-digit points in any game and hit just 11-of-62 shots, including 6-of-34 3-point attempts. His minutes per game sank and turnover percentage rose.
“I think you could look at their growth as as important as anything with our team right now.”– Chris Holtmann on Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington Jr.
The coaches, Muhammad said, had warned him months before the season began about the wall that freshmen sometimes hit. That didn’t stop him from running into it.
“I feel like most of it was just being young, being a freshman,” Muhammad said. “But I don't really make excuses for myself. I just have to work even harder, be more consistent and put more hours in the gym.”
Duane Washington Jr. also endured an inconsistent freshman season.
He didn’t have quite the sudden drop-off in production that Muhammad did, but the combo guard didn’t turn into the microwave, off-the-bench scorer he was billed as out of high school. In a 17-game stretch from Dec. 5 to Feb. 20, he cracked double digits just once, scoring 10 points in a loss to Michigan State.
“As a competitor, as a hard worker, I obviously wanted to play better or do better,” Washington said. “Freshman year was a big learning experience.”
But the end of last season, Muhammad and Washington laid claim to the two lowest shooting percentages – 37.4 and 37 percent, respectively – on Ohio State’s roster.
In order for the Buckeyes to rebound from a 2018-19 season in which they went 8-12 in the Big Ten portion of their schedule to a team expected to challenge for a top-three spot in the conference standings this year, they’ll need the two rising second-year guards to play at a higher level.
“I think you could look at their growth as as important as anything with our team right now,” Holtmann said. “Are they going to learn from their freshman year where they had some really good moments and some moments where they struggled? Can we as a coaching staff get them to take some of those lessons that they learned and take the next step?”
Ohio State has plenty of potential in its backcourt with Muhammad and Washington entering their second year, along with the additions of DJ Carton and CJ Walker at point guard. But the question of whether the sophomores can take their games to the next level remains.
For Muhammad and Washington, Holtmann thinks, that development begins with turning them into more efficient offensive players.
“I think we saw Duane take steps as the season went on and improve in that particular area,” Holtmann said. “Luther hit maybe a little bit of a wall and struggled in some of those areas. I think as coaches, now that we've had a year coaching them, can we do a better job of making sure that we're putting them in positions to make them the most successful? I would point to that as much as anything.”
Though Muhammad slumped mightily from the outside in the second half of the season, he still ended the season shooting 37.5 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, the second-best mark on the team behind Justin Ahrens. His biggest struggles came from 2-point range.
Muhammad made a team-low 52.4 percent of his shots at the rim and hit just 29.8 percent of his 2-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math. He often lacked control with the ball on drives, leading to poor shot selection, turnovers or stagnation in the offense.
With a team once again built around Kaleb Wesson that now has Carton and Walker running the offense, Muhammad could find himself freed up more often on the outside. That might open him up for more uncontested 3-point attempts and allow him to be more choosy with when to drive to the basket.
“I've really been focusing on most importantly my shooting, my outside shooting,” Muhammad said. “But I've been working on pretty much my whole offense. Trying to be a three-level scorer at all times and making sure I don't go through any slumps or hiccups like I did my freshman year.”
Muhammad said last season’s slump shaped him for a better sophomore season. Similarly, Washington has his eyes on a second-year leap, which also could happen with a step up in his offensive efficiency.
Of Washington’s 246 shots as a freshman, 54.5 percent of them came from 3-point range, which was a larger portion than any player other than Ahrens. However, his 3-point percentage of 30.6 ranked just eighth-best on the team.
“For me, I feel like I definitely got better decision making, slowing down, being more patient with my decisions and understanding time and situation,” Washington said. “Shot selection is another thing. Just knowing what coach wants, what we're trying to do, whether it's this scheme or that scheme.”
On the defensive end, Washington believes he has “gotten a lot better.” Throughout his freshman season, Holtmann continually referenced that part of his game as one that needed improvement.
“That was one of my weaker points last year,” Washington said. “In the weight room with coach (Quadrian Banks), working on my vertical and lateral quickness, picking my feet up, moving, staying in front of my guy. So I definitely feel like I've gotten better on that end as well.”
With Ohio State’s daunting non-conference schedule, which includes matchups with Cincinnati, Villanova, North Carolina, Kentucky and West Virginia, it won’t take long to see whether or not Muhammad and Washington have taken the steps Holtmann believes they need to make as second-year guards.
They’re just sophomores. But on a team with only one senior and seven underclassmen, Holtmann has made it clear that they'll be counted on to play a significant role in the backcourt once again, having learned from last season's turbulence.
“This is the second year,” Muhammad said. “We've been through it. We've all played good minutes. And I feel like we're a lot more experienced this year than last year. We're bigger, stronger, and we've just been working hard pushing each other.”