Ask Chris Holtmann about the outlook of this season’s Ohio State team, and he’ll say it’ll go as far as the veterans take it.
For somebody who follows the similar thinking of head coaches who built sustained winning programs at Villanova, Purdue, Virginia and Michigan, that’ll always be the case. Holtmann wants to perpetually have a talented, experienced group of upperclassmen he can rely on, and he still holds that opinion this year, counting on Andre Wesson, Kaleb Wesson, Kyle Young and CJ Walker to lead a team with seven underclassmen that he has consistently called his youngest ever.
Outside of the program, though, much of the optimism about the potential of the Buckeyes from analysts and fans around the country stems from the highest-rated recruiting class Holtmann has ever signed in his two decades as a head coach. Of the four signees, three were ranked top-50 nationally, each higher-rated recruits than any of the other scholarship players on the roster.
Wednesday's 95-52 exhibition win against Cedarville offered a glimpse of the quartet of freshmen who made up the top-rated recruiting class in the Big Ten. DJ Carton (No. 34 in 2019), E.J. Liddell (No. 44 in 2019), Alonzo Gaffney (No. 50 in 2019) and Ibrahima Diallo (No. 368 in 2019) all played between nine and 19 minutes in the Buckeyes’ victory, combining for 36 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.
“It's high expectations for all of us,” Liddell said. “Coach said we could be a really great team if we all buy in and just learn off the older guys.”
Holtmann, in his postgame press conference, sounded satisfied with their first collective performance in front of the public at the Schottenstein Center.
“I think what I was pleased with is the four freshmen really did, I think, try to play the way that we've coached our group to play,” Holtmann said. “And that's really important. We didn't have that, necessarily, across the board with our group, and that's frustrating. But I think that those four guys kind of embraced what we're asking. They didn't play perfect. They missed some things. But I thought their approach was really good.”
Carton, in particular, thrived in his debut.
“It's going to test us at points, but I think we've worked for this, and I think we're ready. So I'm looking forward to it.”– DJ Carton on the freshmen
The freshman point guard who became Holtmann's top-ranked signee ever put up 15 points by hitting 7-of-10 shots, throwing down a pair of dunks and finishing off an alley-oop that Liddell tossed on a fast break. He also had five assists without a turnover in 19 minutes.
“It felt great,” Carton said. “All this hard work we've put in in the offseason and stuff like that, pushing each other, I think this group's special because we're so close.”
When the Buckeyes open the season against Cincinnati on Wednesday, Carton will likely come off the bench behind CJ Walker, a Florida State transfer, along with the other freshmen.
Liddell, the other most likely freshman to push for a starting spot this season, had nine points and four rebounds in the exhibition, making 3-of-6 shots. He and Gaffney both called the game a “dream come true.”
“It was awesome because we worked out together all summer and in open gyms we played against each other,” Liddell said. “Us all getting in the same jersey and playing as a unit, it just felt amazing as us playing as brothers.”
Gaffney and Diallo got most of their playing time in the second half. Gaffney went scoreless in four first-half minutes and Diallo did not enter the game until 16 minutes remaining.
Gaffney, a Cleveland native, scored five points and grabbed one rebound in 14 minutes. Diallo had seven points and four rebounds in nine minutes.
“I grew up being a Buckeye fan, and to be here felt surreal,” Gaffney said.
Those first-game jitters are only natural. Liddell had them too, calling the experience a “little nerve-racking.”
In a few days, the freshmen could have similar feelings with infinitely raised stakes. Rather than an exhibition against an overmatched Division II team broadcasted on BTN Plus, the Buckeyes will open the regular season hosting Cincinnati, one of the state’s top teams and a foe that’ll likely end up in the NCAA Tournament, in a game televised on Fox Sports 1 at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“I feel like all four of us, this is going to be an eye opener,” Liddell said. “I mean, this is going to be the first game where it's going to be a packed house. All four of us have to calm ourselves down because I know personally I would have to calm down when I see all the fans in the stands. I feel like this is going to be a big game and it's going to be a great experience for all of us.”
The freshmen will have to get used to it, quickly.
Ohio State was picked to finish third in the Big Ten in the unofficial preseason media poll despite going sub-.500 in the conference last season, and those projections have as much to do with the first-year players as anything else. In the same poll, the team’s two top-rated freshmen – Carton and Liddell – were the two biggest vote-getters for preseason Big Ten freshman of the year, with Carton getting more than half of the nods.
Collectively, they won’t get much time to ease into high-level competition. In the first two months of the season, the Buckeyes will take on Villanova (home), North Carolina (road), Kentucky (neutral site) and West Virginia (neutral site), after opening at home against the Bearcats on Wednesday.
“It's going to test us at points, but I think we've worked for this, and I think we're ready,” Carton said. “So I'm looking forward to it.”