Going into Chris Holtmann’s first season coaching the Ohio State men’s basketball team, no one knew what to expect from the Buckeyes.
Despite being projected to be one of the worst teams in the Big Ten last season – and not unreasonably so, as Ohio State had gone just 18-15 overall and 6-10 in conference play with a first-round Big Ten Tournament loss to Rutgers in Thad Matta’s final season – Holtmann’s first team went 26-9, including a 13-4 record in Big Ten play, to finish second in the conference and earn a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Even so, expectations outside the program are low for the Buckeyes once again entering their season opener on Wednesday night at Cincinnati (6 p.m., ESPN2).
A preseason poll of Big Ten media members conducted by The Athletic and The Columbus Dispatch projected that Ohio State will finish just eighth in the conference this season, while NCAA.com’s Andy Katz projected that the Buckeyes will finish 12th out of the Big Ten’s 14 teams. Preseason NCAA Tournament projections by CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi did not include Ohio State, while Bovada set the Buckeyes’ odds to win the national championship at 85/1.
Just because the Buckeyes achieved well above expectations in Holtmann’s first season leading the program, however, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be able to make the doubters look silly again.
While Holtmann led the Buckeyes on a spectacular turnaround from laughing-stock to conference championship contender in his first season on the job, he’s believed even since he first arrived that his second season in Columbus might be the toughest.
“I think that this is our most challenging year as a coaching staff,” Holtmann said during Ohio State’s preseason media day. “Because of our early schedule … we have to figure out quickly what our strengths are as a team. How we feel like we guys are playing, and what gives our team the best chance of winning, and what group that looks like. There are a lot of questions, and that’s what happens when you have a team that has some turnover like we had, or graduation like we had.”
Although he had only five months to prepare for his first season as Ohio State’s head coach after being hired to replace Matta in June, Holtmann was confident that the Buckeyes could exceed expectations in 2017-18 because of the talent he inherited, led by fourth-year junior forward Keita Bates-Diop and senior forward Jae’Sean Tate. Bates-Diop blossomed into the Big Ten Player of the Year, which led him to take his game to the NBA, while Tate provided tremendous leadership for last year’s team.
With Bates-Diop and Tate now gone (as well as the Buckeyes’ best 3-point shooter from last season, Kam Williams, and backup point guard Andrew Dakich), there are no clear-cut stars and less obvious leaders entering this season, which means there will likely be some drop-off or at least some growing pains for this year’s team.
Couple that with some challenging non-conference games that include Wednesday’s trip to Cincinnati, a trip to Creighton next week, a late November home game against Syracuse and a matchup with UCLA in December’s CBS Sports Classic, and the Buckeyes could get off to a rocky start if players don’t step up to fill the voids of both production and leadership that Bates-Diop and Tate provided.
Regardless of what happens this season, the future of Ohio State basketball with Holtmann leading the way looks bright. With a trio of top-50 recruits in DJ Carton, Alonzo Gaffney and EJ Liddell all committed to become Buckeyes in 2019, next season might really be the season where Ohio State has a chance to do something special.
For now, though, the focus is on trying to win this year. And while that could potentially could be more difficult than it was last year, Holtmann said he believes his team understands the obstacles it is going to face in the upcoming season, and is looking forward to seeing how they handle that adversity.
“They understand who we lost to graduation. They’re smart, they’re bright. Yet at the same time, I think that what they have to understand is it’s going to be much different,” Holtmann said. “This group will experience some challenges, maybe more than what we experienced last year for sure, and we’ll see how we respond to that.”
While the expectations outside the program are low, that won’t change the expectations within the program. The Buckeyes still have plenty of talent. C.J. Jackson and brothers Kaleb and Andre Wesson are returning starters from last year. Wake Forest graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods is expected to bolster the backcourt rotation. Kyle Young and Musa Jallow both flashed high upside as freshmen last year. And newcomers Luther Muhammad, Jaedon LeDee, Duane Washington and Justin Ahrens all have the talent to make immediate impacts as freshmen.
After losing to Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year, the Buckeyes – particularly those who are going into their final season – are setting their sights on going at least one step further.
“We don’t want to just make the tournament this year, we want to make the Sweet 16,” said senior guard Joey Lane.
“This group will experience some challenges, maybe more than what we experienced last year for sure, and we’ll see how we respond to that.”– Chris Holtmann
In order to make that happen, the Buckeyes realistically might have to do more with less, given the talent they lost as well as the competition they will face. But they have no plans to back down from that challenge.
“Our margin for error, no question, is smaller,” Holtmann said. “And that’s fine. That means we have to find a way to coach better. We have to find a way to play better.”