Last Sunday at Northwestern, Ohio State sophomore wing Justin Ahrens scored 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting from three-point range in the Buckeyes’ 71-59 win over the Wildcats.
It was the second time in Ahrens’ career that he scored in double figures. The first time came last season against Iowa when he scored 29 points. He was dialed in in that game against the Hawkeyes, connecting on 6-of-10 shots from three-point territory as well as all nine of his free throw attempts.
Against Northwestern, Ahrens provided a scoring spark that the Buckeyes have been lacking of late, which was encouraging for OSU head coach Chris Holtmann.
“Yeah, he was good,” Holtmann said. “Took good shots and defended well. They’re obviously a little bit different in terms of how they do things and their personnel, but he had good attention to detail in that game.”
For most of his career, Ahrens’ lack of minutes has been tied to his ability to defend, but Holtmann has seen some improvement in that area of late.
“I think so. Yeah. I think he’s just got to keep working,” he said. “His attitude’s got to be great, as it’s been. He’s got to continue to compete on the defensive end. That’s always been the biggest challenge for him is who’s he going to guard and how effective is he going to be guarding it and can he fight and scrap at the level he needs to? And he’s been able to do that. And also, he’s probably a month to three weeks into actually feeling close to 100%.”
Back in the summer, Ahrens suffered a pair of herniated discs during a deadlift and has spent every day since then recuperating, recovering, and just getting back into basketball shape. He’s had good days and bad days this season, but is finally to the point where the good days keep coming one right after the other.
“Oh yeah, I’m feeling really good,” Ahrens said. “Honestly, I’m as healthy as I felt in months. It’s been like an eight-month process. I’m just happy to be able to play every day and maintain a healthy status from where I was. It feels good to get my confidence back. My shot goes a lot better. I’ve gotten some strength back, so I feel good out there. The past two weeks I noticed my speed’s getting back to normal and my vertical’s back pretty much to where it was. I’m going to try keep building off of this.”
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In the nine games before he scored 12 points against Northwestern, Ahrens managed just 13 points total. He has, however, now played double-figure minutes each of the last three games, which is the first such three-game stretch for him this season.
His ability to shoot from deep opens up more of the floor for his teammates because defenses can’t sag off of him, and if his man doubles the post, then he’s an ideal kick-out man. Now without freshman guard DJ Carton for an undetermined amount of time, the minutes will need to keep up for Ahrens.
And he’ll need to keep up with the game on both offense and defense.
“I felt really comfortable on the floor,” Ahrens said of his performance at Northwestern. “I was in my gaps. I watched film where we watch the game after we played and I felt like I was pretty locked in on my attention to detail on defense. I felt good out there. Being in my gaps, being the help side, making the right rotations and stuff. I had a couple goof ups. And I remember a ball screen that I didn’t switch when Duane [Washington] was talking to me, but that’ll happen sometimes here and there.”
What Holtmann has liked is that none of Ahrens’ struggles this season have been about effort and he believes the more the sophomore plays, the better he will get as a defender.
“Yeah, very, very willing [on defense],” he said. “Yeah, some of it’s been his health. Some of its been that he’s got to be smarter in how he defends and guards and understands angles. He fouls a little bit too much. Some of that’s a process that we started really working with him last year on. He just has not had enough live action because of his injury to continue to grow in that area. But we’ve seen some signs.”