Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
The Buckeyes have gone 5-2 since their dynamic freshman guard announced he’d be stepping away from the team.
On January 31, the Buckeyes were reeling. They hadn’t gone under yet, but they were swimming upstream, struggling to find their footing in a chaotic and convoluted Big Ten conference.
Having lost six of their last eight games and owning a less than sterling 3-6 record in conference play, the next day’s home game with Indiana was as close to a “must win” game as there had been all season, with road trips to Michigan and Wisconsin immediately after that. A loss would drop the Buckeyes to 3-7, not a great position to be in as you hit the road for back-to-back games. Road teams this season are 34-76 in the B1G.
On that night, news broke that freshman guard D.J. Carton, then Ohio State’s second-leading scorer, would be stepping away not just from basketball, but from the university as a whole, so that he could work on improving his mental health. Carton’s mother sent out a tweet the next day, saying her son has struggled with mental health issues since high school.
Thank you to DJ’s many supporters❤️ pic.twitter.com/pOnsRAJX0v
— Jennifer Carton (@meeker1015) February 2, 2020
Carton’s decision to step away from college hoops to focus on his own health and wellness received overwhelmingly positive feedback from fans, players (including NBA players), and coaches. In an age where mental health has become a more pertinent issue amongst young people, especially high school and college-aged youth, it was extremely brave for him to realize and admit that his own wellness should come before any sport, class, game, or practice.
Carton has since returned to Ohio State for classes, but has yet to return to the team or begin any type of basketball activities. Head coach Chris Holtmann has repeatedly stated that before any kind of basketball anything starts for Carton, they want to make sure he’s feeling well and is on a path towards better health. He’s emphasized that there would be a number of steps to get there, and because we’re already in the latter part of the season, you can “draw your own conclusions,” on if he would see the court again this season.
Chris Holtmann says D.J. Carton will NOT be at Ohio State’s road game against Iowa on Thursday. Carton is from Bettendorf, Iowa and left the #Buckeyes in January for mental health reasons. Will he come back at all?
“We’re late in the season so you can draw your own conclusions.” pic.twitter.com/zImGdG5JsS
— Justin Holbrock (@NBC4Justin) February 19, 2020
While the priority is and always has been the well-being of the players, you also cannot completely ignore how that impacted Ohio State on the hardwood. Carton is a left handed guard, who averages 10.4 points per game, shoots 40 percent from 3-point range, and is also a crafty driver.
He provided a nice foil to Ohio State junior guard CJ Walker, also a southpaw, who often works at a slower pace and is a more reliable ball handler than Carton at times. Paired with shooting guards Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington Jr., the Buckeyes finally had some depth in their backcourt for the first time in a few years.
While Carton’s absence did not change the starting lineup, it did shift the responsibility of handling the ball to some guys who were not accustomed to that role, namely Muhammad and Washington Jr. Not only did Carton’s absence leave the Buckeyes with one less scorer, it also left them minus one of their two main point guards. For an Ohio State team already struggling with turnovers, it was a less than ideal conundrum to suddenly find themselves in.
Certainly, the Buckeyes would collapse, right? Down a point guard on a turnover-happy team? Losing a 10-point per game scorer on a squad who desperately tries to scrape 60 points many nights? Already fading to the bottom of the conference with several road games coming up?
Not. So. Fast.
The next day, the Buckeyes beat Indiana at home, 68-59. Walker scored 14 points, his second-highest output of the season at the time. Ohio State then went on to beat Michigan on the road three days later, 61-58. Washington poured in 17 points off the bench, including an ice-pick dagger of a three to seal the win.
Overall, the Buckeyes have gone 5-2 without Carton, bringing their record up to 18-9 (8-8). Ohio State’s trio of guards have been no small part of that, as all three are punching above their weight during their team’s sudden revival. Both Muhammad and Walker have outpaced their season scoring averages during this seven game stretch, while Washington has returned to his early-season form.
Collectively, Ohio State’s three guards (sorry, Danny Hummer) are scoring 27.9 points per game during this seven-game stretch. More importantly, they’re dishing out 7.7 assists per game while only turning the ball over 3.7 times per game. They’re sharing the rock while not turning it over nearly as often as they did in January.
All three of them have had huge moments during this stretch that have delivered victories for the Buckeyes. In Ann Arbor, With Ohio State down two points with 58 seconds to go, Washington Jr. sank a three from the top of the key to give them a one-point lead. That lead of a single point stood still until the closing seconds, when Walker hit two free throws to push their lead to three. This left Michigan with only one option to force overtime- a half court heave that fell well short, and the Buckeyes claimed victory over their rivals up north.
As for Muhammad? He saved his best performance of the season (so far) for the most important game of the year: this past Sunday’s home meeting with the No. 7 Maryland Terrapins. He had 22 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and only 1 turnover while playing 35 minutes for an injury-depleted Buckeye squad who lost Kyle Young earlier that game to a gruesome ankle injury.
Muhammad, not always the most efficient scorer, was marvelous against the Terps’. He hit 5 of his 11 shots, including four of his eight attempts from 3-point range. He was also a perfect 8-8 at the free throw line, where he is an 84.6% shooter this season.
— Ohio State on BTN (@OhioStateOnBTN) February 23, 2020
Will things change if and when Carton returns to the Buckeyes? Maybe they will. Minutes will be distributed differently and offensive schemes may change a bit. But I can say for certain that Ohio State is a better, more dangerous team when he is playing. Their recent hot streak is in spite of them missing Carton, not because of it.
Throwing him back into the mix would give the Buckeyes another ball handler and weapon on top of what they’ve had during in his absence. Any notion that it would “mess up their mojo” or “throw off their chemistry” is downright lunacy.
With Kyle Young’s future uncertain and Musa Jallow redshirting, missing Carton isn’t ideal. But if these shorthanded Buckeyes can hang tough like they’ve been doing lately, you have to feel good about their chances come March if Walker, Washington, and Muhammad continue to step up when it really matters.
And boy, does every game matter right now.