Finding the right fit for your college basketball program isn't just about what happens on the court, but off it as well. Ohio State added a key piece. How will that commitment impact the Buckeyes?
Eleven days ago, the Buckeyes suffered a brutal end-of-the-season loss to Oral Roberts, losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament to a 15 seed for the first time in program history. Certainly, it stung.
But Ohio State couldn't afford to wait to address next season's roster. Not with more than 1,000 players entering the transfer portal before the Sweet 16 even tipped off.
The coaching staff made finding a veteran, defensive-minded guard a priority and contacted several of them. Marshall's Jarrod West and Seton Hall's Shavar Reynolds both told reporters they had heard from the Buckeyes. Head coach Chris Holtmann didn't need to look outside of the Big Ten, though, to plug what his staff viewed as a hole.
Former Penn State guard Jamari Wheeler entered the transfer portal two weeks ago, and on Tuesday night his dalliance came to an end by committing to play his final year of college basketball at Ohio State.
On The Court
Several times in the final month or two of the 2020-21 season, Holtmann commented that the Buckeyes had to play better defensively, but he noted there was a natural ceiling to how they performed on that end of the court. Yes, they didn't have a rim-protecting center, as many pointed out. But their perimeter defense was also lacking.
Wheeler was brought in to address that need.
The 6-foot-1, 170-pound guard knows the Big Ten as well as anybody after spending the past four seasons playing 2,892 minutes across 127 games – with 84 starts – for the Nittany Lions. He'll be counted on to make life hell for opposing guards the same way he did the past several years. He's a two-time All-Big Ten Defensive Team member (2020 and 2021) who averaged 1.8 steals per game last season. That's an area Ohio State could use a boost considering it ranked 337th nationally and 13th in Big Ten play in the rate at which it turned opponents over last season.
With Duane Washington Jr. already at the helm of a backcourt set also to feature Jimmy Sotos, Meechie Johnson and Malaki Branham, the Buckeyes didn't need to go searching for a boost from a guard in the scoring department. Rather, they needed a tough, competitive defender who can guard the ball and make the less-sexy plays. That's what this addition is supposed to be.
Offensively, Wheeler's fairly limited. He's not much of a scorer, averaging 3.8 points per game across his Penn State career and 6.8 points a game last season. But he can find the open man, averaging 4.2 assists compared to 1.8 turnovers in 2020-21. Plus, he's developed into a solid outside shooter, knocking down 35.7 percent of his threes as a senior.
That's not why he'll spend the next year in Columbus, though. He's a Buckeye because of the defensive tenacity he showed with the Nittany Lions.
On the Roster
Trying to understand how eligibility works in the age of players getting additional years of eligibility afforded to them is borderline impossible. My mistake is the latest example of that being the case.
I had been under the impression that Wheeler's commitment put the Buckeyes over the 13-scholarship limit. But that's incorrect. Jimmy Sotos will technically be utilizing his “super senior” year, meaning he doesn't count to the limit, and neither would Kyle Young if he opts to stick in school for one more year.
Long story short: Wheeler's commitment puts Ohio State at – not over – the scholarship limit.
Here's what the 2021-22 roster looks like (with Young and Sotos included and not counting to the limit of 13):
|PF||SETH TOWNS||KYLE YOUNG||–||E.J. LIDDELL||ZED KEY||KALEN ETZLER|
|JUSTIN AHRENS||–||EUGENE BROWN||–|
|SG||–||–||DUANE WASHINGTON JR.||
Naturally, the next question about the 2021-22 roster is simple: Will Ohio State add a big man?
Holtmann and his staff are chasing several of them. Most notably, five-star Efton Reid is in their crosshairs.
The status of Reid's recruitment largely hasn't changed in a while. The Buckeyes continue to feel good about their position with him, continue to pursue him and continue to wait. Reid keeps his recruitment to himself, but time is slowly running out for him to make up his mind. The signing period begins in a little over two weeks and runs until Aug. 1. There haven't been any indications about when his process might come to a close. At 6-foot-11 and 225 pounds, he's the No. 23 overall recruit in the 2021 cycle, and he's an option for Ohio State.
They also could look into the transfer market for a solution, of course. John Harrar, Penn State's former center, reportedly heard from them, and new options enter the portal on a daily basis for them to evaluate.
Wheeler took the path less traveled to arrive at Ohio State.
Out of high school, he held offers from Auburn, Houston, Seton Hall and VCU, but he was unranked in the composite and was listed as the 72nd-best point guard in the 2017 recruiting cycle. That led him to Penn State, where he played 14.4 minutes per game as a freshman reserve before blossoming into a starter for the following three years.
Rapidly, his role grew. He was picked as Penn State's most improved player at the team's banquet following his sophomore season, and he was one of three players on the Nittany Lions' “Juice Squad” who were honored for being role models as leaders and motivators. The next two years, he was voted as one of the Big Ten's five best defenders, and now he's Columbus-bound.
Wheeler wrote in his commitment letter: “I look forward to joining the family and fighting for a Big Ten Title and NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP!”