Ohio State replaces Walker by committee in win over Rutgers
Ohio State’s point guard situation looked bleak entering its weekend tilt with No. 15 Rutgers.
After C.J. Walker was ruled out indefinitely with a shoulder injury, three scholarship guards remained on Chris Holtmann’s roster; each appeared either unproven or unready to control an offense going into Saturday.
Bucknell transfer Jimmy Sotos had played just 87 total minutes in 11 games. Duane Washington Jr. has had well-documented issues with control. Meechie Johnson is supposed to be a high school senior.
There was no clear answer.
So instead of handing the keys to the offense to one specific player, Holtmann turned the lead ball-handling position into a group effort on Saturday.
For the most part, it was a good call.
Walker’s primary role was shared by Johnson, Sotos, Washington, and junior wing Justice Sueing in Ohio State’s 79-68 win-- the four combined to dish out 10 assists and split possessions as ball-handlers.
“We’re obviously down a fantastic player and leader, but he’s still there talking to us on the sideline," senior forward Kyle Young said of Walker's absence. "Jimmy did a great job today, stepping up and leading us starting off the game. Got us a huge lift early on. We look to those other guys to bring the same energy.”
Though E.J. Liddell and Washington handled a large portion of the scoring duties, Ohio State’s ball movement was among its best this season.
Sotos (four assists) and Sueing (five assists) flung the ball around in their time on the court, making extra passes and keeping the Rutgers defense moving.
“As far as me handling the ball, I know Coach trusts me enough to be a ball-handler and to make those decisions as well," Sueing said following the game. "Other guys have to step up too at those positions, and today I think did a really good job adjusting.”
Nearly as impressive was Johnson, who looked confident and prepared in his first few collegiate minutes.
The 18-year old didn’t turn the ball over and handled the offense with composure while on the court in the first half.
“I was really proud of Meechie,” Holtmann said. “I give him a ton of credit. It’s gonna be a slow build with him. I give him a ton of credit. Excited about him continuing to grow.”
It was a solid performance on both ends from Ohio State's guards, sans Walker.
The Buckeyes limited Rutgers to 43.9 percent shooting, and the defensive concerns of Johnson and Sotos entering this season were nearly non-existent against a normally-effective offense.
Washington was stellar too, locking down the perimeter and contesting shots at the rim.
Rutgers’ starting backcourt of Geo Baker, Montez Mathis, and Jacob Young combined to shoot 14-for-34 from the field and struggled to find many good looks.
“I thought defensively, we were good. We were pretty locked in,” Holtmann said. “They got a lot of guys who can make shots and a lot of guys who can get to the rim.”
In the end, what kept Holtmann’s team in control for the majority of this game was its early lack of turnovers.
The Buckeyes entered Saturday as one of the Big Ten’s best in terms of limiting giveaways, but much of that was thanks to their senior point guard’s steady hand.
Until the Scarlet Knights put together a late run (after Sotos left with a shoulder injury), Ohio State had zero issues taking care of the ball without its usual lead guard, committing only five turnovers in the first 30 minutes of this game.
Sueing was huge in the closing moments, keeping the Buckeyes from falling apart with his free throw shooting and confident ball-handling.
For the majority of this game, Ohio State's guards and wings put together a confidence-inspiring performance-- without their most important leader-- against a ranked team.
“We’re really just reading the game and sharing the ball," Sueing said. "I think that’s the biggest thing-- being able to share the ball and move the defense really puts us in a good position against other teams.”
In a conference with as much talent as the Big Ten, that level of cohesion is critical.