Saturday’s meeting between the No. 7 Ohio State men’s basketball team and No. 4 Illinois marks the final regular-season game of the year for both squads and a pivotal chance to grab some momentum for the Buckeyes as they look to snap a three-game losing streak heading into the Big Ten tournament.
While the finale already carries significant weight in terms of feel and trajectory for an Ohio State team that, just over a week ago, had won seven consecutive games and was ranked fourth in the AP Poll, extra emphasis will be added as two Buckeye seniors — Kyle Young and C.J. Walker — perhaps play their final game in Value City Arena.
Both Walker and Young’s paths to Ohio State began by first committing to different schools. Young originally committed to play for head coach Chris Holtmann while Holtmann was still leading the Butler University program in 2017. However, after Ohio State was able to lure the emerging coaching talent to Columbus following Thad Matta’s departure, Young elected to follow the head coach he originally committed to play for.
Asked about how much he reflects on the decision to follow Holtmann to Ohio State, Young said on Thursday, “It would have been a lot different, and I think about that all the time. I believe everything happens for a reason, and I believe there’s a reason his staff ended up getting the job here … I’m just blessed and grateful because it could have been a lot different at Butler.”
As a Canton, Ohio native, Young had an early understanding of just how big of a presence The Ohio State University and its premier athletic programs have across the state. Young said the ability to be a part of that presence, as well as the size of the stage on which he’s been able to continue to his basketball career has meant the most to him.
“Just growing up, being an Ohio kid, you know what Ohio State means to everyone in the state of Ohio,” Young said. “My family, growing up, was Ohio State fans. Just the fact of playing college basketball at this high of a level in the Big Ten these past four years has been incredible. It’s been a dream of mine, and I’ve been living that dream these past four years … I’m very grateful to be in the position I’m in.”
For Walker, an Indianapolis native, his college basketball journey originally took him to Florida State where he played two seasons before transferring to Ohio State in 2o18. Due to the NCAA’s transfer rules, Walker was forced to sit out the 2018-19 season before becoming eligible for the 2019-20 season.
Since the start of last season, Walker has played in 52 games for the Buckeyes, second only to Duane Washington Jr.’s 53 appearances. Like Young, Walker has embraced a role as an unquestioned leader on a team, something he most wants to be remembered for, and he’ll have one more opportunity to lead the Buckeyes at home on Saturday.
“I’ve been through a lot throughout my life, just been a lot going on,” Walker said when asked to reflect on his approaching Senior Day. “Being in this moment, playing on the big stage, playing for Ohio State, it just really means a lot. The things you go through — preseasons, offseasons, just life itself can be really hard at times — being in this moment is just really good for me, and I’m really grateful to be in this situation. Playing in front of my family, play for this staff, and for my teammates.”
Walker added, “It’s just a really big moment for me, and I’m ready to play, ready to win. It’s a good game against a really good team. I’m just ready to win, advance in March, and just build off of that.”
Given the strange world college athletics is currently operating in, where athletes have been granted a free year of eligibility this season as a result of the pandemic, there remains a chance that both Walker and Young could return for another season at Ohio State. Walker said playing another season, which would be his sixth at the college level, is “always a possibility” and a conversation that has already taken place between himself, his family, and the coaching staff.
Young, like Walker, has not made a decision on whether or not he’ll take advantage of the extra year of eligibility, saying he will weigh his options after the season is finished.
Of course, past all the festivities, emotions, and looming decisions that are to come with their Senior Days, there will still be a considerable challenge ahead when the ball tips as Ohio State looks to right the ship. Young said on Thursday there isn’t anything particularly at issue with the team despite the recent slide. Rather, he said the Buckeyes need to continue preparing at the level that will be required in order to keep the season alive this month.
“We don’t think there’s necessarily too much wrong,” Young said. “We just need to focus more on continuing to bring energy every day and continuing to be good in our prep leading into the tournaments. That’s just what we’ve been preaching in the locker room.”
Walker said of the team’s approach heading into March, “We just kind of want to focus on today, just getting better today. Obviously, we watch film and learn from it. There are things we need to do better, especially throughout this three-game stretch that we’ve had. We’ve played against really good teams that are playing really well right now, so we just got to figure out ways to finish games and play harder for the whole 40 minutes.”
Ohio State and Illinois are scheduled to tip off at 4 p.m. on Saturday, with ESPN carryign the broadcast.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.