Ohio State Hoops Notebook: The Rise of Justin Ahrens, Musa Jallow “Squeezed Out” of Rotation, Seth Towns Still Working His Way Back

By Colin Hass-Hill on January 26, 2021 at 5:02 pm
Justin Ahrens

Don’t look now, but just 10 games remain in Ohio State’s regular-season schedule.

Chris Holtmann has the Buckeyes ranked 13th in the nation after winning four of their past five games, reaching the midpoint of Big Ten play with a 12-4 record overall and 6-4 mark within the conference. Next up is Penn State at home on Wednesday night.

To preview the 17th game of the season, Holtmann joined the media for a virtual press conference on Tuesday afternoon. He also hit on a number of topics beyond just the upcoming opponent, including Justin Ahrens' improvement, why Musa Jallow isn't playing much and several players dealing with injuries.

The rise of Ahrens

Never before had Justin Ahrens made three 3-pointers in four straight games. Never before had he played 20-plus minutes in four straight games. Never before has he attempted at least five shots in four straight games. Never before had he started four straight games.

Ahrens is living in a world of “first-evers” right now as the third-year shooting guard settles into the biggest role yet of his Ohio State career.

Only twice in the first nine games of this season did Ahrens crack the 20-minute mark. Then, coming off of a one-minute outing, he splashed six threes to score a season-high 18 points in 20 minutes against Nebraska on Dec. 30. Injuries to CJ Walker and Jimmy Sotos shortly thereafter opened up some minutes for him, and he has taken advantage of them by averaging 9.9 points in 23.4 minutes in the past seven games. 

“He's earned this playing time,” Holtmann said. “He's been a big part of us winning four out of five in this league, because of what he's brought and getting better on the defensive end. I'm happy for him. I'm really glad for him. And hopefully he can continue to work and get better.”

Ahrens leads the Buckeyes in outside shooting by knocking down 50.7 percent of his 4.2 3-point attempts per game. As a starter for the past four games, he has drained 13-of-24 threes.

To his credit, Ahrens knows what he does best and sticks to it. 

“He creates great gravity for you offensively, opens the floor,” Holtmann said. “People are naturally hugging him and drawn to him because of his ability to shoot it so consistently. For the most part, he's taken good shots and been aggressive at the same time. Defensively, he continues to get a little bit better. He'll get really challenged tomorrow in a lot of ways because of the quality of their guards across the board.”

Musa “squeezed out” of rotation

Musa Jallow averaged 22.3 minutes in his first seven games of the season, sat out the Dec. 30 game versus the Cornhuskers due to contact tracing and hasn’t played more than 13 minutes since then. Most recently, he played two second-half minutes in last week’s loss to Purdue and didn’t get off the bench in Saturday’s win at Wisconsin.

The fourth-year wing from Indiana has, in fact, been healthy enough to play. Holtmann has simply made the decision to go with others recently.

“Musa's a tremendous young man and a good player, really good player,” Holtmann said. “He's still coming back from kind of the rust of being off for an entire offseason. Bottom line is you can't play everybody. The rotation gets trimmed. I wouldn't be doing my job if we were trying to play 12 guys and spread the minutes out. So you kind of got to commit to a group. That could change, but that's part of it. We've played Gene (Brown) some of those minutes here, as well as Justin. Ultimately, somebody's going to get squeezed out. Whoever does get squeezed out has to stay ready because anything can change at any moment.”

Jallow has averaged four points, 2.6 rebounds and 0.5 assists in 16 minutes per game this season, appearing in 12 games largely as a defensive stopper with unmistakable athleticism.

Walker still playing through hurt hand

In total, CJ Walker missed four games of action, watching from the sideline as Ohio State beat Rutgers, Northwestern and Illinois before losing to Purdue. He found himself back in the action on Saturday with eight points, three assists and two boards in 24 minutes to help the Buckeyes topple Wisconsin.

The two-and-a-half weeks off helped him heal torn ligaments in his right hand. However, the time away from the court didn’t get him back to 100 percent health.

“I think it's always going to be a pain tolerance,” Holtmann said. “Could there be a situation where it's bothering him or he gets hit and he has to play less? That will ultimately be his call. It's a pain tolerance thing for him from game to game. I really need to take my cues from him on how he's feeling. I don't think the torn ligaments, I know they're not completely healed. He was anxious to get back, as we knew he would be.”

Towns working his way back

Over the weekend, Seth Towns’ 10 points off the bench were critical to Ohio State topping Wisconsin. Yet the coaches didn’t know if he’d even get a chance to play in the days ahead of the game.

“There were days leading up to the Wisconsin game where he just couldn't practice,” Holtmann said. “He didn't feel physically well enough to do it. We weren't sure whether he was going to play. And I think that'll continue to be the case until he gets a full offseason of complete kind of rehab.”

The injury that sidelined him for more than 1,000 days hasn’t allowed him to get back to full strength quite yet. Per Holtmann, both Towns (knee) and Kyle Young (lower leg) haven’t been able to “consistently practice” because of their ailments. 

In spite of what he’s going through, Young has remained a starter averaging 25.6 minutes per game. Towns, though, is more limited. He has scored in double figures two of the past three games, playing 16 minutes in all three of them, but he's only managed 5.4 points in 10.3 minutes per game since making his Ohio State debut against UCLA on Dec. 19.

“He's already proven that he can be a really effective player,” Holtmann said. “We don't win several of these most recent games without Seth Towns. But I think the timeline in him had to be adjusted, and it had to be adjusted for us. He needs a full offseason. He needs to be able to go through that. And I'm excited about what next year's going to be for him. Having said that, I still think I'm excited about his continual growth this year. He's going to help us in a lot of games this year. A lot of games.

“The whole deal with him missing some practice, that's been a struggle for him and it's been a struggle for me as a coach to figure out how to manage all that. But he's been tremendous for us.”

Sotos, Diallo still out

For at least one more game – and possibly longer – Ohio State will remain without two players.

Fourth-year guard Jimmy Sotos (shoulder) and second-year center Ibrahima Diallo (sprained MCL) will remain unavailable for the Buckeyes on Wednesday, per Holtmann. Sotos has been out since suffering an injury late in Ohio State's Jan. 9 win at Rutgers. Diallo hasn't played in a game since Dec. 12.

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