Chris Holtmann, Ohio State’s fourth-year head coach, didn’t sound overly optimistic when discussing Seth Towns and Musa Jallow’s availability for the start of the 2020-21 season a month ago, and he took a similar stance this week.
“Overall, our health remains relatively the same place it was,” he said on Wednesday afternoon. “I don't have a specific timeline on Seth and Musa. At this point, I could speculate that Musa would be closer to returning than Seth. I would say (Seth is) at least a month away from getting into live action, in terms of practice stuff.
So far, per Holtmann, injuries to Towns and Jallow have kept them out of “live action” while they do “some limited contact drill work.”
Towns, a graduate transfer from Harvard with two years of eligibility remaining, had his latest surgery at the beginning of this year to deal with a knee injury initially suffered in the 2018 Ivy League championship game. Since then, multiple surgeries have forced him to miss the entirety of two college basketball seasons, and he won’t be back for the beginning of the upcoming season. Ohio State plans to be cautious with him due to his extended rehabilitation process.
Jallow, a redshirt junior, missed the entirety of last season with an ankle injury that now threatens to keep him out to start this season. The athletic, defense-first wing underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his right ankle before the 2019-20 season began then had reconstructive ankle surgery in January.
“Everybody else is healthy and in a good place physically,” Holtmann said.
It’s Just Reality
Mere moments into Holtmann’s Zoom call with reporters on Wednesday, news dropped of the Ohio State-Maryland football cancellation due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the Terrapins program. If he were numb to the realities of the effect COVID-19 will have on the Buckeyes’ upcoming season, it might have been a bit of a shock.
But he has a handle on the impending difficulties.
“I'm putting a 27-game schedule together,” Holtmann said this week. “I don't think we're going to play 27 games. But I'm putting one together.”
An unfortunate reality? Yes. But it’s one he’s been keenly aware of for a while.
“We've had practices where we've only been able to practice with six or seven guys,” Holtmann said. “Not because of necessarily positivity, but because of following all of the necessary protocols of contact tracing. We've had very few interruptions within our program. Very few. It's been a real blessing that we've had very few interruptions with our practices. But we do expect there will be some.”
Schedule Nearing Completion...Again
Ohio State already went through this once. All the way back in early May, the team released its out-of-conference slate, which featured a trip to the Bahamas as part of the Battle 4 Atlantis and eight other games.
It was settled. Until it wasn’t.
The coronavirus pandemic led to the NCAA cutting the maximum number of allowable games down to 27, so the Buckeyes had to cut several opponents – mostly home games against low-major and mid-major opponents – from their schedule. Then, due to sky-high COVID-19 positivity rates in South Dakota and a recommended 14-day quarantine for anyone who travels there from Ohio, they pulled out of the Sioux Falls-based Crossroads Classic. Jim Borchers, Ohio State football’s team physician, talked to Holtmann last week and the decision to leave it was made.
“We had been tracking that pretty closely,” said Holtmann, referring to the three-game Crossroads Classic where his team would have opened the season against Memphis on Nov. 25. “It was a tournament we really wanted to play in. That's kind of why we stayed in it as long as we did.”
Instead of preparing to travel to South Dakota, Holtmann is working to finalize Ohio State’s 2020-21 non-conference schedule that suddenly doesn’t have a season-opener. Estimating he’s spending 70 percent of his workdays and nights on scheduling right now, he says he hopes to have it finished in the next week or two.
“We're close on a couple games, but we haven't had the finishing touch on the schedule yet,” he said.
Holtmann intends to play in an exempt event – which would allow Ohio State to play 27 total games instead of a maximum of 25 games without it – but does not have the details on it yet. The event could take place in Columbus, he said.
Ohio State, per its official schedule page, has games lined up with Morehead State (Dec. 2, home), Alabama A&M (Dec. 5, home), Notre Dame (Dec. 8, road) and North Carolina (Dec. 19, Cleveland). Provided the Big Ten releases a 20-game conference schedule in the near future, the Buckeyes will fill out their schedule with a yet-to-be-determined exempt event where they’ll play three games.
Signing Three Recruits This Week
Later this week, Ohio State will have the paperwork in, and three four-star, Ohio-born prospects the coaching staff badly wanted – Malaki Branham, Meechie Johnson and Kalen Etzler – will make it official. Johnson and Etzler already signed their National Letters of Intent to play college basketball in Columbus, and Branham will do so on Friday.
“Suffice it to say, I'm really excited about this class,” Holtmann said. “I think we've got some guys that I really feel confident are going to be able to step in and help us. Obviously, we have some perimeter needs that we needed to address with graduation of CJ (Walker) and our couple perimeter players getting older. We're really excited about it. Friday, we'll have all those in and be able to put a (press) release out.”
Johnson, a 6-foot-2 point guard, will join the Buckeyes in December to bolster a suddenly deeper-than-expected backcourt that includes redshirt senior CJ Walker, junior Duane Washington Jr., Bucknell transfer Jimmy Sotos and the incoming freshman. Initially, Johnson planned to enroll next year along with the rest of the 2021 recruiting class, but Abel Porter’s heart condition that forced him to end his basketball career led to a scholarship opening.
Branham, a top-30 overall prospect in his class, hails from St. Vincent-St. Mary where he has developed into an efficient, slashing combo guard. Etzler, a spindly 6-foot-8 power forward, will arrive in Columbus next summer with Branham. He’s a native of Convoy where he’ll finish out his high school career at the same place he started – Crestview.
While Ohio State only plans to sign those three prospects this week as part of the Early Signing Period, the coaches remain after several big men to possibly fill out the class. Efton Reid, a five-star who plays for IMG Academy’s post-graduate team, has been a top priority for multiple years. Fellow IMG Academy five-star big man Charles Bediako and Minneapolis native Chet Holmgren – the No. 2 overall recruit in the 2021 cycle – have also taken visits to Ohio State and remain targets of the staff.
“We have, as you know, we've been recruiting big guys, some of them for a couple years now – over two years. I'm excited about where we're at. I think the pandemic has changed the timeline for some guys. In some cases it sped it up, and in some cases it slowed it down. We're going to run the race with guys that we feel great about, have a great relationship with. Obviously, you also have the spring period in which we'll also certainly take a look at available transfer big men, as well. They'll be a part of that kind of pool of recruits that we'll look at.”