Take/Counter-Take: Chris Holtmann Will Lead Ohio State To A Final Four

By Chris Lauderback and Andy Vance on June 16, 2020 at 8:35 am
Chris Holtmann

Chris Holtmann made the NCAA tournament his first two years at Ohio State, and he got bounced out in the second round to end both seasons.

A global pandemic stopped the Buckeyes from even having a chance at a postseason in Year 3 of the Holtmann era. How far would they have gone? It's impossible to know. Holtmann sure thinks they had a shot to advance a few rounds.

Ohio State hasn't advanced to the Sweet 16 since 2015, and it hasn't made a Final Four since 2012. Holtmann surely wants to advance multiple weekends and reach the Final Four, ending the nearly decade-long drought, but will he ever take the Buckeyes that far into the NCAA tournament? We debate.

Take: Chris Holtmann Will Go To A Final Four At Ohio State

Andy Vance: I'll admit my personal bias up front – three years in, I am thoroughly impressed with Chris Holtmann as Ohio State's head basketball coach. From immediately grasping things like the importance of playing in St. John Arena to embracing those silky throwback uniforms, the skipper has made just about all the right moves so far.

His teams have, by and large, overperformed expectations. Consider that when he arrived in Columbus, expectations were just about as low as they could be for a school of Ohio State's stature after a regrettable slide in recruiting and performance over the final years of the Thad Matta era – and Holtmann's teams delivered first-round NCAA tournament wins in each of his first two seasons.

That made five years running that a Holtmann-coached team made it to at least the Round of 32, a remarkably consistent achievement for a with just under a decade's experience as a head coach.

What might have been this year? Like Holtmann himself, I wonder, given the Buckeyes' sensational start to the season and resurgence down the stretch. While the team lost a maddening six of seven games after Christmas, they came back to win nine of 12 to close the year.

Let's get the one big red question mark out of the way: the transfers. Watching five guys walk out the door sooner than expected stings a bit, particularly when it comes to losing a guy like DJ Carton. On the other hand, Holtmann has done a solid job of scouting talent coming the other way from the transfer portal, and guys like Seth Towns, CJ Walker and Justice Sueing are solid additions to any roster.

So why do I think Holtmann takes Ohio State back to the promised land?

For starters, if you look at the list of active coaches to lead their last five-consecutive teams to an NCAA tournament win, every one of them has been to the Final Four save Holtmann – these are guys like Mike Krzyzewski, Jay Wright, Roy Williams and John Calipari. Blue bloods, yes, but they show that same type of consistency Ohio State's head coach has exhibited at Butler and now in Columbus.

In addition to being consistent, he seems resilient and adaptable. Look at Ohio State's turnaround to end last season: he and his staff went back to the drawing board and figured out how to get his team to play better late, to get back to playing solid defense and most importantly scoring from distance and getting to the free-throw line. Making those type of adjustments and getting players to respond to adversity is what postseason winners do.

Holtmann also appears to be an incredibly player-friendly coach who also has high expectations for his men. Consider his support of DJ Carton as he struggled with mental health issues last season, and how Holtmann has been vocal in his support of grad transfer Seth Towns; recruits will like and value a coach who backs his guys like that. And at the same time, they will respect that he has standards and expects accountability, sitting players who don't live up to their end of the bargain when need be. He continues to recruit well, underscoring the point.

Making it to the Final Four is tough business, of that there is no question. Thad Matta did it in his third season – that isn't typical, and it took him five seasons to do it again. But based on how Holtmann has weathered the storm that was the past five months I believe he'll get there, too.

Counter-Take: Chris Holtmann Will Not Lead Ohio State To A Final Four

Chris Lauderback: I'll admit, I'm somewhat of a pessimist by nature. I don't love that it's true but I'm old enough to know who I am. 

That said, when it comes to formulating an argument supporting why Chris Holtmann won't lead Ohio State to a Final Four, I really don't feel like I'm being negative.

I'm big on facts and data and while I understand it's not hard to pull particular pieces of data to support any stance, there are a few basic tenants at play here that make it easier to rationalize this side of the argument than Andy's. 

First of all, I don't care who the coach is at Ohio State, it's hard to get a team to the Final Four. Really hard. 

Ohio State has 11 appearances since the Final Four became a thing back in 1939. Three of those came in during an eight-year span running from 1939-1946 when tournament's field consisted of eight teams. 

Legendary head coach Fred Taylor led the Buckeyes to four Final Four appearances, including three consecutive (and the school's only national title) during an 18-year tenure in Columbus. He built some powerhouse teams led by Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek, among others, during an era when the tournament field ranged from 22-25 teams. 

Over the last 50 years of college basketball, Ohio State has just three Final Four appearances, coming in 1999, 2007 and 2012. Said differently, the Buckeyes have appeared in 6 percent of the Final Fours since 1970. Like I said, it's hard to do. 

Once you get past the frequency data, the next reality is most teams that reach the Final Four have the best players, or at least one superstar capable of carrying a team. Yes, a team needs luck and a coach that can dial up the right play at the right time but just like any other sport, the better Jimmys and Joes typically beat the better X's and O's. 

Taylor was able to reach four Final Fours because he had talent like Lucas, Havlicek, Larry Siegfried and Bill Hosket, among others. 

Jim O'Brien wasn't much a recruiter over the course of his time in Columbus but his 1999 Final Four squad featured Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd. Scoonie was the Big Ten's player of the year that season and Redd averaged 19.5 points per game before going on to be an NBA all-star and gold medalist in 2008. 

Thad Matta's signature quality was obviously recruiting. He reached the Final Four during his third season in Columbus (2006-07), on the strength of what was really his first real recruiting class. 

He wasn't hired until July 7, 2004 and the traditional cycle was already signed so he added Ron Lewis as a transfer that September. The next year Ohio State's roster didn't have any room for newcomers. So, really, Matta's first full recruiting class came in 2006 and he responded by signing the best core in school history. The names Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., David Lighty, Daequan Cook and Othello Hunter should ring a bell. 

Matta's 2006-07 squad advanced all the way to the national title game before losing to a great Florida team featuring Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah. 

His next sprint to the Final Four came in the 2011-12 season (even though the 2010-11 team was even better). This group was powered by recruits like Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas, William Buckets and Aaron Craft, among others. 

You could argue all of those names are better players than anyone Holtmann has yet to bring in, and keep, at Ohio State – and Matta only made it to two Final Fours in 13 years. Plus those were just recruits that played on Final Four teams so you don't even see Evan Turner, Jon Dielber or D'Angelo Russell mentioned. 

I'm not trying to unfairly compare 13 years of Matta recruiting to just a handful of opportunities on the trail for Holtmann. But the reality remains, through three seasons, Holtmann's best players were guys left behind from Matta's tenure. 

Holtmann's best year of the first three came in year one as Matta holdovers Keita Bates-Diop and Jae'Sean Tate led the Buckeyes to a second-place tie in the Big Ten standings before falling to No. 4 seed Gonzaga in the second round of the Dance. 

The following year, his squad finished eighth in the Big Ten to earn an 11-seed before losing by 15 to No. 3 seed Houston in the second round. 

Last year's squad went 21-10 and finished in a fifth-place tie in the Big Ten standings before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the ongoing pandemic. The team's best player was Kaleb Wesson, who decided to come to Ohio State when Matta was still in Columbus. 

Could that team have made a run to the Final Four? 

The chief reason for fairly average results the past two seasons (41-25, .621) is a lack of elite talent. 

DJ Carton, the most-heralded recruit of Holtmann's short tenure, didn't last a full season for reasons out the head coach's control. Can't knock him for that whatsoever. But the player is still gone. 

Alonzo Gaffney was a top-50 prospect and while I'm not sure how in the hell that was actually the case, he didn't last a full season either. Luther Muhammad was a top-80 kid and started two years but chose to leave the program a few months ago. 

Jaedon Lee? He was ranked No. 103 coming in but transferred early. Ibrahima Diallo was a project when he was signed and frankly looks like a back-end rotation player, at best. Justin Ahrens ranked No. 249 largely out of projection he'd be a one-dimensional player. That seems pretty reasonable so far. Musa Jallow's been injured for the bulk of his time in Columbus. 

On the plus side, Duane Washington looks like a guy unafraid to be a scorer on a really good team and Kyle Young is the kind of heart-and-soul dude every Final Four team needs. 

EJ Liddell, ranked No. 44 in his class, looks ready to blossom as Holtmann's best recruit-to-date which is super exciting. 

Holtmann's latest cycle brought in a pair of top-140 guys in wing Eugene Brown and pivot Zed Key. Hopes are high for the duo but obviously the jury will remain out for a few years. 

And of course Holtmann has been hot and heavy on the transfer market bringing in Justice Sueing who scored 14.4 points per game at Cal, and Seth Towns, a former conference player of the year from Harvard, among others. 

Holtmann does have Meechie Johnson (No. 84) and Kalen Etzler (No. 136) coming next year and is in the hunt for some major names like fellow 2021 prospects Kendall Brown (No. 14), Efton Reid (No. 20) and Malaki Branham (No. 25). 

Landing a five-star or two, or at least mining a few diamonds in the rough, seems like a must-do if Holtmann is going to lead the Buckeyes to a Final Four. Based on an admittedly small sample size of production and recruiting-to-date, I'll unfortunately bet against Ohio State's 12th Final Four occurring during his tenure. 

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