Men’s Basketball: Wheeler brings toughness, veteran leadership to Buckeyes

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Ohio State graduate guard Jamari Wheeler (55) speaks with the media during Ohio State Basketball’s media day on Sept. 28. Credit: Mackenzie Shanklin | Photo Editor

For the past four years, Jamari Wheeler has been a constant thorn in the Ohio State men’s basketball team’s side — racking up 12 steals against the Buckeyes, including five in one game.

This season, the former Penn State guard will suit up for the team he formerly terrorized, bringing his defensive prowess and veteran leadership to the Buckeyes as a fifth-year graduate transfer.

Wheeler, a two-time All Big-Ten defensive team selection, will immediately improve an Ohio State defense that ranked 197th in total scoring defense and 334th in turnovers forced. During the team’s media day, Wheeler’s new teammates said the tenacity he played with during summer workouts has already elevated their level of play.

“He’s one of the best defenders in the country in my eyes, so going up against him every day is a blessing,” freshman guard Meechie Johnson Jr. said.

The Live Oak, Florida, native has led the Big Ten in steals in back-to-back seasons — averaging 1.8 steals per game in his final season with the Nittany Lions. His defensive efforts on the perimeter have earned him spots on two All-Big Ten defensive teams over the course of his Penn State career.

Wheeler’s focus and intensity on the defensive end this summer has turned the head of Johnson, citing his work ethic and stamina in particular.

“He is just nonstop,” Johnson said. “No matter how tired he is, he is picking you up full court.”

Wheeler’s demeanor on the defensive end makes him a sound fit in head coach Chris Holtmann’s spirited, aggressive-minded program.

While Wheeler has gained the team’s respect through gritty play and veteran guidance, his teammates have earned his with their willingness to buy into Holtmann’s program and approach practice with an intensity and focus needed to compete for championships.

“They have [played] a lot of basketball, so they know what it takes to win,” Wheeler said. “They’re willing to bring it every day, they’re willing to buy into coach’s culture and what he wants us to do. Everyone is just buying in and giving their all every day, and the rest is going to take care of itself.”

Former guards C.J. Walker and Duane Washington Jr. were more offensive-minded in their play style than Wheeler, but he’s seen improvements each season on that. The former Nittany Lion saw his most productive season on that end in 2020-21, putting up 6.8 points per game on 39 percent shooting from the field and 35 percent from 3-point land.

With four years of Big Ten experience under his belt, Wheeler has already established himself as the leader of an inexperienced Buckeyes backcourt — one that will need to make up for the losses of veteran guards Walker and Washington.

“That’s who I am, that’s what I bring to the table, that’s me as a person,” Wheeler said. “I got experience playing in this league for four years, so [I’m] just bringing a lot of experience here.”

On the court, Wheeler has taught his younger backcourt mates, such as Johnson and freshman guard Malaki Branham, to compete with relentless focus and attention to detail.

Wheeler said this level of concentration is needed for the Buckeyes from the start of the 2021-22 season, where they are handed a difficult nonconference schedule that features games against Duke, Kentucky, Seton Hall and Xavier.

“[I’m] just teaching them the pace of the game, how you have to play hard every night,” Wheeler said. “Because every night you are playing against somebody that’s going to be good, a team that is going to give their all every night. Especially with the name across our jerseys, too, it makes teams play even harder.”

Wheeler said his experience in the Big Ten has allowed him to recognize the importance of having a battle-tested and level-headed backcourt that can keep the team composed in high-pressure situations away from home.

“You got to have a great leader that’s in the backcourt, just keeping everything under control,” Wheeler said. “Especially in the Big Ten, because we are going to hard environments playing on the road against good teams.”

As he enters his first and final season as a Buckeye, Wheeler said he has zero qualms regarding his decision to stay in the Big Ten and compete with Ohio State.

The graduate guard said he has already developed special relationships with teammates and coaches he once considered rivals.

“They’re my brothers now,” Wheeler said. “The whole locker room, the coaches down to the players. Everyone is making me feel like this is a second home. It just made my decision more complete to me.”

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