“It was a great question.”
The first thing on every Ohio State player's mind was their team's expectations for this coming season. With a brand new, mostly unknown coach — and the one that recruited each of them, Thad Matta, no longer around — in the fray, the Buckeyes yearned to know everything they could about the new direction of the program for which they signed on years ago.
After all, many days slipped by with hardly any answers about the immediate future of Ohio State men's basketball.
“It was really the unknown that was killing us. Like who's it going to be? What's going to happen?” redshirt junior forward Keita Bates-Diop said. “Because it happened all so fast so we didn't really know what to do.”
“It was really the unknown that was killing us. Like who's it going to be? What's going to happen? Because it happened all so fast so we didn't really know what to do.”– Keita Bates-Diop
Ohio State introduced former Butler head coach Chris Holtmann on Monday as the new man to lead the program Matta built for 13 years but saw slip to mediocrity recently. While that was an essential part of the process, the most important step came three days earlier when Holtmann left his home in Indiana, boarded a plane and make a quick flight to Columbus.
He had to meet with Bates-Diop, Jae'Sean Tate and the other members of his new team.
“One of the first things I wanted to do was stand in front of them,” Holtmann said on Monday. “I was able to sneak over here, sneak in and out and spend some time with them. I was really, really impressed.”
What ensued was a 45-minute team meeting between Holtmann and his new players, with questions and heavy dialogue reverberating the team room at the Jerome Schottenstein Center. Players wanted to know about Holtmann's background, what he thought the team could become this winter with just nine scholarship players (and former walk-on Joey Lane) left in the fold and the other goals for the program moving forward.
Holtmann then met with each player individually, some longer than others.
Ohio State announced a mutual parting with Matta on June 5. The Friday before, he and Gene Smith met to discuss the state of the program. Tate said the players discovered Matta was out not even 15 minutes before the afternoon press conference. Bates-Diop said he heard "from someone who heard from someone" a few hours before.
In any event, rumors fluttered for days both about Matta's status and then while Smith conducted his coaching search. It left the players in limbo for what felt like weeks, so Bates-Diop and Tate called a meeting with the athletic director.
“We wanted to have some idea of what was going on, try to figure out what was going on with the other [coaches],” Bates-Diop said. “We all had questions.”
Those questions then shifted to Holtmann on Friday, who had been escorting his wife and daughter over the Midwest in a flurry for the span of 72 hours. Holtmann wouldn't bite Monday on mentioning who he plans to add to his coaching staff. But he felt an immediate need to go meet the personnel he has at his disposal for the first season in his Ohio State tenure.
“When I was talking and meeting with the players on Friday, some of the questions was what will some of my goals be for this team?” Holtmann said, before referring that as a "great question" from his new players. “My college coach used to say over and over, something as simple as this: Do today well. He'd say it over and over. Hopefully, that is going to be our goal from Day 1.”
He cited a "great energy" from Tate, Bates-Diop and Co. and came away impressed with every player's anxiousness toward this winter. Smith called the 2017-18 season one of transition in Columbus. But the pressure to win isn't going away.
Holtmann knows that and so do his players. Which is why that meeting, filled with great questions, was warranted. Now the great questions revolve around how the program moves forward under new leadership.
“He's not going to be the coach who is going to wait around for a few years and then try to win games. He's one of those guys that, 'I'm going to come in and win now,'” Bates-Diop said. “It's going to be a lot of work, obviously, we gotta build trust with one another.”
Added Holtmann: “We're going to spend a lot of time together collectively and then we're going to spend a lot of 1-on-1 time together. That process will continue to happen. I think that they're just learning and wanting to understand who I am and what I'm about. I sensed excitement and I think a readiness to get to work. I think they're excited about what's ahead. I cannot wait to get working with them. Cannot wait.”