An early commit to Thad Matta and the Buckeyes, Versailles junior Justin Ahrens has put recruiting behind him to focus on being the player the “scouts” , and his coach, say he could be.
Tipp City – Admittedly, last week’s opening win over the Celina Bulldogs presented little challenge to Justin Ahrens and the Versailles Tigers. Versailles won 67-40 and Ahrens left the game early with 26 points.
Tuesday night, in Tipp City, Ahrens and the highly-anticipated Tigers got a sterner test against Coach Joel Visser’s defensive-minded Red Devils.
The point is, of course, how will Ahrens, who committed to Thad Matta and the Ohio State Buckeyes, now progress as the state’s #4-ranked prospect at his position amidst questions in the past about his game, his decision making, and his discipline under fire.
The obvious answer is…give it time. He’s just a junior. He barely shaves. Can’t drive yet. But he knows…with college selection behind him his focus now has to be on tightening up his considerable talents and quieting those who question. If one can actually do that.
He averaged 22.7 points a game as a sophomore, and at times played like a human highlight reel. There were the nights without challenge.
Other nights posed a different, considerable challenge. Shots didn’t fall, and shot selection was sometimes out of frustration. Teams colluded to stop him, while teammates stood helpless, as unexplored options to score.
“There’ll be better days, I know,” said a disappointed Ahrens outside his locker room following last spring’s season-ending loss to Miami East in the sectional tournament. And for all the world, he sounded totally convinced of it.
As part of the process good players evolve, and the evolution of Justin Ahrens on was on full display Tuesday, an ugly game in many respects for the fact of a lack of flow, too many fouls, and hey…it’s still very early.
Versailles won by fourteen, 60-46, but at times it seemed much closer than fourteen points.
Tipp, predictably, focused on stopping Ahrens, and succeeded. He drew two early fouls and was forced to sit.
By halftime he had just five points. He finished with 10, but shot poorly, overall. He missed his last three free throw attempts in the fourth quarter.
Still, it was a step in the right direction – a sign of maturity for the 6’5” junior from which so much is anticipated…expected.
There were no wild casts of the basketball from three point range.
His head appeared to be on a swivel, finding open teammates for easy points close to the rim.
Rather than force the issue – to get his points – he was content to let the game come to him, and win.
“He got in some foul trouble early tonight and faced adversity for the first time this year, and in the second game,” said first-year coach Travis Swank. “He’s a very talented player, but he’s going to get into situations like tonight where he has to rely on his teammates for us to be successful – for us to go where we want to go.
“He’s a good player, and he’s got great skills. But these things have to come to him and when they do I think he’s going to be one of the best to ever play in the MAC.”
Other teams, like Tipp, will focus on him throughout the year. But if they do they run the risk – the age-old conundrum – of getting beat by one, or getting beat by them all. It was the latter scenario that paced the Tigers past the Red Devils on Tuesday. Austin Knapke scored 10…Keaton McEldowney scored 9…Connor Custenborder scored 8…Alex Wendel scored 7…and Justin Ahrens’ twin brother, A.J., led them all with 14.
Zach Bonifas led Tipp with 14 points; while teammates Cade Gingrich and Josh Wildermuth contributed 10 each…34 of the Red Devils’ total of 46 points.
“It’s something that my dad and my brother have stressed to me over the years,” said Ahrens after the game Tuesday, before boarding the bus for home. “I kinda’ came in hot as a freshman, started on varsity, and they told me that I’d have to face some adversity…double-teams, face-guarding, and bad shooting nights like tonight. I didn’t step up to the challenge in the past the way I could have, but I know I have to bounce back this year and meet that challenge. I know that my teammates are going to help me.”
His early decision to commit to Ohio State, he admits, was a weight off his shoulders and one less distraction over his final two years of high school basketball.
“Having committed, the only team that’s going to come watch me now is Ohio State,” he adds. “Unless I de-commit, and I really don’t see that happening, so I don’t have the pressure to prove myself like I would if a lot of different coaches were coming to watch. I have less on my mind now and the game is easier.
“There’s going to be nights like tonight when the shots don’t fall, but that’s basketball. I just have to get back in the gym tomorrow and work on my game…use tonight as a learning experience.”
If Tuesday’s win proved nothing else after just two games, it was an indication that by Ahrens tightening up his game – letting the game come to him – teams will have to plan accordingly for one of the area’s most highly-anticipated teams in 2016-17. Versailles lost but two seniors last year, and the returning supporting cast has logged a lot of minutes together over the past two seasons.
“We have a lot of experience,” says Ahrens with a broad smile. “Look, we lost two seniors that combined to score about twelve points a game, and I know if we continue to share the ball we have guys who are going to make shots and score. We’ve been playing together since the seventh and eighth grade and we know each other. We’ve adjusted to the coaching change real well. Practices have been good.
“I know there’s a lot of expectation for us to win. But it’s one thing to say it and another thing to do it. We’ve got to step up to that challenge.”
Heady words for one so young. And if he makes good on his evolution, the challenge will be on area basketball to stop not just Justin Ahrens…but the Versailles Tigers.