Musa Jallow had his eyes closed and his fists clenched in his coach’s living room. Joey Lane, too, had his fists clenched in front of his face, but he lowered them enough to stare at the television. Kaleb Wesson, scratching the back of his head, laid on the ground beside Keyshawn Woods.
Ohio State’s players and coaches, gathered together, had already seen two regions of the NCAA tournament bracket revealed. Nerves had set in long before they watched a few bubble teams – including Temple and Belmont – earn spots in the field of 68. But their additions certainly exacerbated the tension in the room.
“I was nervous,” Keyshawn Woods said. “I'm pretty sure everybody else was nervous because you're seeing all these teams get selected, and you hear the possibilities of where you're supposed to be placed. But then when your name don't come across, then you get worried. Then you get down to, 'Oh, there's two more regions left,' and you don't know.”
Then came the Midwest Region.
In a playroom beside the living room, about a dozen children screamed as they played with each other, completely unaware of the anxious feelings residing in the room next door. Holtmann called the room “tense” and “very quiet.”
“You could hear a pin drop when the six, when Iowa State came up, because we knew, 'Hey, is that going to be us?'” Holtmann said.
Woods admitted he had that same feeling a couple times before then. This time, the Buckeyes had no false hope.
Ohio State. A No. 11 seed facing Iowa State in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Friday.
Everyone in the room screamed at a level that surely put a scare into some of the children in the room next door.
Wesson leapt up from the ground in excitement. Lane jumped off the couch and threw a victory punch at the air. A wide smile emerged on Woods’ face, and he high-fived Wesson a half-dozen times in the span of three seconds. Jallow sprung off the couch and locked arms with Harrison Hookfin and Kyle Young, placing his head on Young’s shoulder in relief. Holtmann could climb out of the couch he joked he was hiding under.
“It just took a major shift in the room, and everybody just was cheering, happy, hugging each other,” Woods said. “And that's what it's about. You just want to see everybody happy, see everybody smiling. Hopefully our fans and Buckeye Nation is just as excited as we are.”
Ohio State took quite a path to get into the tournament.
It began the year with a 12-1 record, then stumbled through a rough month of January, exiting it with a 13-7 record and work to be done. The Buckeyes then endured an rocky month-and-a-half of games, picking up key wins against Nebraska, Indiana and Iowa in the regular season before beating the Hoosiers for a second time this year in the Big Ten tournament on Thursday, likely clinching their at-large berth.
“All season long, we've been leaning on each other just throughout the struggles,” C.J. Jackson said. “Obviously this year had its ups and downs, and just to see our name pop up there was a bit of a sigh of relief. We're excited for the new opportunity.”
Jackson and Woods both spent the past two days resting. Woods did the “same old” things he usually does, but didn’t watch any remaining conference tournament games, taking a break from basketball and instead heading to a movie theatre to see “Captain Marvel.” Jackson spent his resting time laying down.
Holtmann, though he began the weekend content, didn’t rest particularly well as he awaited Ohio State’s fate.
After the team’s loss to Michigan State on Friday, Holtmann said he was “confident” in the Buckeyes’ odds of earning a bid, and he had reason to feel that way. The vast majority of bracket projections had Ohio State in the field, even though a decent amount had it playing in the First Four in Dayton.
Holtmann’s optimism remained the following day. But as he began to parse through his team’s resume and compare it to the resumes of other bubble teams, his confidence waned.
“As I told Gene Smith, yesterday I felt we were solidly on the 11 line, maybe even a 10,” Holtmann said on Sunday. “As each hour passed today and I studied the numbers, I studied myself into absolute paranoia, and I just had to stop. Thank god we had practice so I could just stop looking at it.”
Holtmann hadn’t gone through any similar situations in his prior years as a head coach. Either his teams had comfortably made the field or they were well on the outside, far from even being a bubble team. Last year, the Buckeyes were a five seed.
Having gone through it both ways, Holtmann certainly would prefer to avoid the stress this weekend brought.
“Much better last year,” Holtmann said. “Way better. Slept better. Then, it was just you're looking at kind of 5-12 games, which are really dangerous games, and it proved to be really dangerous for us last year. We knew it was four, five or six last year. This year, we thought 10, 11, play-in. That's kind of what we thought. Like I said, I talked myself out of everything in that leading hours.”
Holtmann might have talked Ohio State out of the tournament picture, but the selection committee talked itself into including the Buckeyes, and that was the only opinion that mattered.
Despite one of the more turbulent seasons in recent Ohio State history, the team is headed to the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row.
“We was just happy,” Woods said. “We was just really, really happy that our name came across the screen. We had a great moment as a family, as a Buckeye family.”