Hoops Notebook: Chris Holtmann Explains Ohio State's Schedule, First Thoughts On Freshmen, Buckeyes Apply for Jimmy Sotos Waiver

By Colin Hass-Hill on October 2, 2020 at 5:58 pm
Chris Holtmann
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Good luck to anyone trying to find certainties about Ohio State’s 2020-21 schedule.

Initially, Chris Holtmann hoped the initial slate of 31 games that had the Buckeyes set to tip off against Oakland on Nov. 11 would remain intact. As time passed this summer, it became increasingly clear that it will look notably different than expected when the program released the non-conference portion of its schedule in May.

“The schedule will look completely different,” Holtmann said on Friday. “It'll certainly measure up as the hardest in the history of our program just given how unique the year is.”

Here’s what we know for sure about the schedule:

  • It will max out at 27 games, which is a mark the NCAA has mandated across the sport.
  • Of those 27 games, 20 will likely be played against Big Ten opponents. However, that number isn’t set quite yet, and they could have more in-conference matchups.
  • Ohio State will play in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, Holtmann said. His team will be on the road against a yet-to-be-determined opponent.
  • The Buckeyes will take on North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic on Dec. 19. The location isn’t yet set for the game, Holtmann said.
  • Most of the games against low-major or mid-major teams in the non-conference portion of the schedule won’t be played for a “variety of reasons,” per Holtmann. The Buckeyes had Oakland, Akron, Alabama A&M, Niagra, Towson and Morehead State on their schedule released earlier this year.

“Beyond that, I couldn't give you really any more specifics, even including the South Dakota event,” Holtmann said, referring to the formerly-named Battle 4 Atlantis that has been moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Much of the holdup in finalizing a schedule, Holtmann said, comes down to how many conference games the Big Ten plays. Will it be 20 games, as usual, or will it be more?

Holtmann’s voice on the matter has been heard. He’s on a Big Ten scheduling subcommittee, which features several athletic directors and head coaches. The conference’s head coaches also have two weekly conference calls on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.

“I'm saying the same thing on those calls that we really do need to finalize the number,” Holtmann said. “I believe it to be 20 (Big Ten games). I expect that it's leaning in that direction. But if there's an increase, it just changes. I think everybody's concerned about over-scheduling to some point right now. I think, again, everybody's going to play a really challenging schedule. But that's what you're dealing with is waiting on final word from the Big Ten on how many games.”

Is this team mature enough?

Nothing about the 2020-21 season will be normal. That’s the only thing anybody knows for sure.

Ohio State has already gotten a dose of that over the past few months, with players taking multiple COVID-19 tests per week and participating in workouts with stringent protocols. Knowing how much remains ahead for the Buckeyes who want to play a full season, does he think this group is mature enough to do what it needs to to remain safe and coronavirus-free? Yes, he says. He does.

“I've been incredibly impressed with their maturity these past 10 weeks,” Holtmann said.

What might help Holtmann is the veteran presence on the roster. 

He only has four underclassmen, including two freshmen. The rest of the team is made up of upperclassmen – two fourth-year seniors, two fifth-year seniors, a fifth-year junior, two fourth-year juniors and two third-year juniors.

“I think we've got a group that is mature, that cares about each other,” Holtmann said. “That's a good place to start. Again, we've got a lot of questions we've got to answer. But I do feel pretty confident in seeing them operate. We know that there are certain things you can do to prevent the risk of getting COVID, but you can't completely prevent the risk. But I do believe after seeing our guys day to day here for the last 10 weeks, I like our maturity.”

First thoughts on the freshmen

As Holtmann said in the summer on Real Pod Wednesdays, Ohio State didn’t bring in Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. as part of its 2020 recruiting class. But the coaching staff believes the duo of incoming freshmen who first made the hike to Columbus earlier this year should turn out to be multi-year contributors as Buckeyes.

Practices won’t get started for about another two weeks. The past few months, though, have allowed Holtmann to get an idea of what Ohio State has in 6-foot-6 wing Gene Brown and 6-foot-8 forward Zed Key, a pair of three-star recruits ranked among the 150 best players in their class.

“They've been working hard and have gotten better,” Holtmann said. “They both have to get in better shape. They both have to get in much better shape, and they have to be able to kind of push through fatigue – normal freshman stuff. And their work capacity has to continue to grow and increase. But both guys have done some really good things in our workouts so far. Zed has been, as we'd expected, he's physical. He's 6-8 with a 7-1 wingspan, about 255 pounds. He's used a lot of that 255 pounds in our workouts. He's a strong, strong kid. Gene has shown ability to defensively, we think, be able to help us. He's got to continue to improve some of his offensive skills and shooting at this level. 

“But really pleased with both guys. Really pleased with them.”

Key provides some interior depth to a spotty area on Ohio State’s depth chart. Outside of Key, the only big men on the roster are 6-foot-8, 225-pound Kyle Young and 6-foot-10, 220-pound Ibrahima Diallo. Young’s undersized compared to many centers and Diallo played sparsely as a true freshman.

Right away, the New Yorker will have a chance to earn playing time as a big man with touch around the rim and enough size to potentially rebound well at a young age.

“Zed, very solid. A bigger dude,” Duane Washington Jr. said. “He's way more athletic than I thought, as well. That'll be helpful, as well. He has good timing on rebounding and blocking shots, as well.”

Brown’s path to the court as a freshman isn’t quite as clear as Key’s when looking at the rest of the roster. Justice Sueing, Seth Towns, Musa Jallow, Duane Washington Jr. and Justin Ahrens are also looking for minutes at the positions classically known as shooting guard or small forward.

His outside shot-making and length could earn him some playing time.

“Really lengthy. Can shoot the ball. Athletic,” CJ Walker said. “Also can guard multiple positions – one through three. Really athletic, smart kid willing to learn, willing to work. Just a really good kid. I'm really excited to have him on my team going into my last year.”

Financial ramifications

Ohio State’s athletic department projects it’ll operate with a $107 million deficit for the 2020-21 academic year – not accounting for media right revenue – which means each of the 36 sports programs could have to make some changes.

Holtmann, who’s taking a 5% pay cut, didn’t go into many specifics about the basketball team’s budget on Friday. He did note, though, that athletic director Gene Smith has approached the program about some alterations to cut costs.

“We've had to change and will continue to change,” Holtmann said. “Gene has asked us to change how we would operate. Certainly, we haven't been recruiting, so there's been a large number of expenses that have been saved. We've looked at busing more than flying with appropriate games this year, wherever that's going to be, instead of chartering. We've looked at some more kind of day-to-day operations in a cost-cutting way. That's what's been asked of us. We've certainly been willing to do it.”

Waiver For Sotos?

Near the end of Friday’s press conference, Holtmann dropped a nugget of information about one of his guards.

Ohio State applied for an immediate eligibility waiver for Jimmy Sotos, a transfer from Bucknell. Holtmann said the program hasn’t heard back yet from the NCAA about approval or denial.

“We're thin at the perimeter positions,” Holtmann said. “We have put in a waiver for Jimmy Sotos, but we don't have a word on that.”

Sotos was the second-to-last of the Buckeyes’ additions in a turnover-filled offseason during which they lost two players to graduation and three to transfer while bringing aboard two freshmen and three transfers. Having played three seasons for the Bison, he has only one season of eligibility remaining. 

When Ohio State brought him aboard, it did so with the intention of having him sit out the upcoming season in order to serve as a guard alongside Washington for the 2021-22 season once Walker and Abel Porter graduate. If the NCAA gives Sotos the green light to play right away and he does, the Buckeyes would lose him, along with Walker and Porter, after the season. That would be a dangerous proposition, even when accounting for Malaki Branham and Meechie Johnson eventually joining the team.

Importantly, even if Sotos’ waiver gets approved by the NCAA, the Buckeyes would have the option of redshirting him this season as they planned. They wouldn’t have to play him if the waiver is eventually approved.

Sotos, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound guard, can play both on and off the ball. He averaged 11.5 points, 3.9 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 32.1 minutes per game at Bucknell last season.

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