At this time last season, it was almost unfathomable to think Jamari Wheeler would be where he is now.
The graduate guard was anchoring a Penn State program determined on earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Wheeler’s storied, four-year Nittany Lion career. Following his senior season in State College, Pennsylvania, Wheeler elected to transfer to Ohio State — a program he saw reasonable success against while at Penn State.
Now as a veteran of 13 games in an Ohio State uniform, Wheeler said he made the right decision to come to Columbus.
“It starts with the love in the locker room and the coaches. Also just the basketball; we’re playing at a high level every night,” Wheeler said. “It’s been everything I wanted and wished for.”
Despite joining the Buckeyes this season, Wheeler is one of three Buckeyes to start in every game — alongside forwards junior E.J. Liddell and senior Justin Ahrens. Unlike Liddell and Ahrens, who can score in bunches, Wheeler flies under the radar offensively, instead doing the dirty work for his team — a similar role to which he played at Penn State.
As an everyday starter, Wheeler has the ability to stuff the stat sheet in a variety of ways. This was seen Sunday, as he turned in a performance in which he finished with eight points and rebounds, six assists and five steals to help the Buckeyes beat Northwestern.
Wheeler — a two-time All-Big Ten Defensive Team member while at Penn State — is the quintessential hustle player for the Buckeyes, leading the team in steals while suffocating the opponent’s backcourt scoring. His 22 steals is 10 more than the next Buckeye and his 1.7 swipes per game ranks third in the Big Ten.
The Live Oak, Florida, native has recorded a steal in all but one game this season.
Whether it’s keeping opposing guards at bay or diving for loose balls, Wheeler’s energy has been infectious on the young Ohio State team. Even prior to his first game with the Buckeyes, Wheeler’s ability to create energy was seen by his teammates.
“Jamari has brought a level of intensity to our team on the defensive end that has really raised the bar for everybody, and we all feed off his energy a lot,” redshirt senior forward Justice Sueing said Oct. 29, 2021.
Although Wheeler is known for his prowess on the defensive end of the floor, he has been a solid option as Ohio State’s primary facilitator on offense.
Wheeler’s 4.3 assists per game rank eighth in the Big Ten while his 56 total assists are the most from the Buckeyes by a wide margin.
While Wheeler sets up his teammates for easy looks, he also takes care of the ball at a high level. Although the Buckeyes average 13.1 turnovers per game — the fourth-worst mark in the Big Ten — Wheeler has staked out an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.2, ranking ninth in the conference.
As the Buckeyes’ primary ball handler, Wheeler said the team’s turnover issues can be easily fixed at this point in the season.
“They’re all on us. It’s not like other teams are making us turn the ball over, we’re turning the ball over ourselves,” Wheeler said. “Once we clean that up, we’re going to go next level.”
In his lone season with the Buckeyes, Wheeler is averaging career bests in points per game with 6.9 and field goal percentage with 48.5 percent. He has also proved to be a solid asset beyond the arc, shooting 38.5 percent on three attempts per game.
Although Wheeler’s scoring ability isn’t his headlining attribute, he’s shown that he can hit shots in high-pressure situations.
Against Nebraska Jan. 2, Wheeler drilled two 3-pointers in overtime to help the Buckeyes notch a road win off of a 22-day program halt. Freshman guard Malaki Branham expressed pride in seeing his veteran teammate hit those kinds of shots at that moment.
“I was extremely happy for him because he can definitely shoot the ball but sometimes he doesn’t want to shoot it,” Branham said. “It was definitely good seeing him being confident and shooting the ball.”
As Wheeler will only get one season with the Buckeyes, his eyes are focused on one goal: earning some hardware.
“Now, we just got to go finish and go get us some championships,” Wheeler said.