Twelve games into 2021-22, Justin Ahrens called his start to the year “one of the best starts I’ve had to a season in my career” at Ohio State.
At that point, Ahrens was averaging a career-best 8.2 points per game and knocking down 40.6 percent of his 5.8 3-point attempts. But the very next day after making that assessment, Ahrens had his worst shooting performance of the season, going 0-for-5 from the floor – all 3-pointers – in a 95-87 Buckeye win over Northwestern on Jan. 9.
Including that game, Ahrens is now just 3-for-18 from beyond the arc in his past four outings, shooting 16.7 percent from deep while averaging just 2.8 points per game. If anyone is worried about Ahrens’ play as of late, though, it isn’t Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann.
“He’s a tremendous shooter, a tremendous shooter. I really don’t worry about it at all,” Holtmann said after the Buckeyes’ 83-37 win over IUPUI on Tuesday night. “I think he’s gonna hit his stride. It’s the least of my concerns. The least of my concerns is Justin Ahrens’ shooting.”
While the last four games have seen particularly poor shooting from Ahrens, his downturn in performance started even earlier, as the Versailles, Ohio, native shot 1-for-4 in a blowout win against Wisconsin on Dec. 11. Before that game, Ahrens had been hitting 44.4 percent of his 3-point attempts with an average of 9.1 points through the first nine contests of the season.
Ahrens didn’t get a chance at a bounceback effort for more than three weeks, as Ohio State saw three games canceled due to COVID-19. By the time the Buckeyes returned to action on the road against Nebraska on Jan. 2, just about every player not named Malaki Branham or Jamari Wheeler appeared visibly rusty on offense. Ahrens shot just 1-for-5 in Lincoln, but an off night for anyone on the team was justified.
Only Ahrens hasn’t been able to shake off that rust ever since. His best night shooting in the past seven games was a 2-for-6 game against Indiana in which he had six points, and Ahrens hasn’t scored more than six points since his 16-point performance against Towson on Dec. 8.
|FIRST 9 GAMEs||24||54||.444||.429||9.1|
|LAST 7 GAMES||7||33||.212||.235||3.9|
|LAST 4 GAMES||3||18||.167||.211||2.8|
Since then, Ahrens has averaged just 3.9 points on 21.2 percent shooting from 3-point range over the past month-and-a-half. Even if Holtmann isn’t concerned by it, he has taken notice of Ahrens’ recent skid.
“He’s just gotta cut loose and play,” Holtmann said. “I think he’s gotta play with a little more juice, a little more confidence to him and I think he’s probably overthinking it a little bit.”
Holtmann said Ahrens’ slump has not extended to the practice floor at Ohio State, which is no doubt one reason the Buckeye coach isn’t too troubled by what he’s seen from the team captain overall.
“He’s shot it well in practice. He’s really shot it well in practice,” Holtmann said. “Now, in practice it’s like league play – they don’t leave him a whole lot. But he’s shot it really well in practice.”
Ahrens has started all seven games for the Buckeyes during his struggles, and he started all nine before that. But one lineup adjustment was hard not to notice to start the second half against IUPUI on Tuesday, when sophomore guard Eugene Brown took the floor to begin the final frame in place of Ahrens. Ohio State was already up double digits on IUPUI at halftime of an eventual 46-point rout, but Brown’s insertion was the only change from the Buckeyes’ typical starting five as the second half began.
Brown found plenty of success with the extra minutes, scoring a career-high 14 points on 4-for-6 shooting. Brown still played six fewer minutes than Ahrens, who finished with three points on 1-for-5 shooting after missing his first four 3-pointers of the night.
The home crowd at the Schottenstein Center had begun to get restless with each Ahrens miss, so the pop from the audience was particularly exaggerated when he finally got a long ball to fall in the second half.
“All it takes is one,” Buckeye guard Jimmy Sotos said about Ahrens’ struggles after the game. “You just gotta hit one.”
Perhaps that “one” against IUPUI will be enough for Ahrens to snap out of his recent funk. But even if it isn’t, his Ohio State teammates – and their head coach – are no less confident in Ahrens’ ability to knock down an open shot.
“The best way out is to keep shooting,” Cedric Russell said Tuesday. “The whole world don’t get to shoot the ball, so just continue to shoot, simple as that. … (The confidence) is still the same. He can shoot the ball, so just continue to shoot the ball. I have no hesitation to pass him the ball because I’ve seen him make them multiple times since I’ve been here.”