A buttoned-up, Ohio State polo shirt-wearing, bespectacled Chris Holtmann started banging both of his fists on the table in front of him to emphasize every single word coming out of his mouth.
“The thing in this league right now is if you get off of growing and getting better every day, you get beat,” Holtmann said. “I feel like I'm talking to my team right here, so I apologize for the enthusiasm.”
He had every reason to feel enthused inside the State Farm Center on Saturday afternoon. His Ohio State team had just traveled to Champaign, Illinois, and handed the preseason pick to capture the Big Ten championship an 87-81 loss on its own home court. The victory extended the Buckeyes’ win streak to three games after previously beating Rutgers on the road and Northwestern at home, tied them with the Illini for fourth place in the conference and improved their record to 11-3 on the season.
This, effectively, was the latest example of the process he so often talks about coming to fruition in front of him. He has seen his players buy in and accept his role, he has remained committed to the day-by-day improvement he preaches, and now he is seeing the visceral on-court results he desired in what Seth Towns thought was the most physical game Ohio State has played all season.
Two words into the sentence after he apologized, the fists started hitting the table again. Holtmann, who has assuredly delivered this message to his own players – including the table-pounding – dozens of times over the past few months, couldn’t help himself.
“But if you come off that, you get beat. You lose,” Holtmann said. “So the challenge is every day commit to that work in progress, because that's what we are. That's what we are, and that's what most teams are, but that's certainly what we are with some of our new pieces and young guys that are assuming new roles. We have to be firmly committed to that because as soon as you take your sight off that, in this league you're going to get beat and people are going to say, 'Why? How are they getting beat by that team?' Well, we took our eyes off of getting better, in some cases.
“That's the challenge for us is to continue to do that, and I think if our group has that mindset, then it will give us our chance to be better – or be our best, at least.”
Finally, the fists rested. Point made.
Among those in new roles this season who’ve gotten more acclimated to them as the season has progressed is sophomore forward E.J. Liddell, a 6-foot-7 forward who has twice in his career faced his home-state Illini and both times suddenly looked like a first-team All-Big Ten player. He recorded his first-ever double-double in a win against them 10-and-a-half months ago, and he set a new career high of 26 points in his first road showdown with Illinois on Saturday.
The past couple of months, Liddell – who went from averaging 16.6 minutes per game last season to 27 per game this season – has dealt with the difficulties of showing up alongside Duane Washington Jr. on the top of opposing teams’ scouting reports. On Wednesday, he missed all six shots from the field against a Northwestern team that trapped him and specifically targeted making things difficult for him. Afterward, Holtmann had to talk to the second-year to help him understand how some of those misses affected the rest of his performance.
Evidently, Liddell listened and learned. His 26 points were the most by anybody on either team, and he added a career-high four made 3-pointers with seven rebounds, too. He was also part of a cadre of Buckeyes who had the task of corralling 7-foot center Kofi Cockburn.
“It's my home-state school, but that's not what motivated me today,” Liddell said. “It was my teammates. I felt like I needed to do more to help us win today. I didn't really have the best game against Northwestern, and that's why they stayed in it most of the time. But I just felt like today, I just did everything I could for my teammates. Tonight it was just scoring, and that's how we got the win.”
Nobody else on Ohio State scored more than 11 points, though all 10 guys who took the court contributed in meaningful ways – which is becoming somewhat of a theme.
Justin Ahrens picked up four fouls before seeing the ball go through the net, yet during a seven-minute stretch in the middle of the second half, he drilled a trio of 3-pointers to keep Illinois at bay. Holtmann says he has a saying – “never flinch” – that Ahrens abided by when he pulled up in transition for his final triple of the day.
“I just don't know we're going to get a better look than Justin with a wide-open 3,” Holtmann said. “Really proud of him for stepping up.”
Seth Towns tied his season-high of 11 points in 15 minutes, making a pair of 3s and later noting he’s feeling healthier. Justice Sueing, playing point forward due to the continued absences of the injured CJ Walker and Jimmy Sotos, committed a team-high five turnovers yet also recorded nine points, seven boards, four assists and two steals and had the defensive assignment on Ayo Dosunmu. Washington drained all four free-throw attempts in the last 23 seconds when Ohio State couldn’t afford any misses. Musa Jallow played just six minutes but swatted a corner 3-pointer with less than two minutes to go after Ahrens fouled out.
Zed Key, a freshman who came in as a three-star recruit, made Cockburn work for everything. The always-active big man finished over the behemoth Cockburn in the post and drew an offensive foul, recording eight points and four boards. He and Kyle Young epitomized Holtmann's stated strategy of making Cockburn “score the ball in crowds and see bodies as much as possible.” Meechie Johnson, who started practicing just a little more than a week ago, recorded a game-high plus-17 in just his second collegiate game ever.
“I think what it says about our young men right now at this point is they've really embraced what each guy can bring to the team,” Holtmann said. “They've been able to come in and play effectively.”
Towns added: “We've made a ton of progress as a team chemistry-wise and so on. You see Meechie already making huge contributions to the team, my health improving and so many people coming into form. I think the chemistry is probably the biggest thing. We're finding each other where we like our spots to be, and you see so many people on the team coming alive because of it.”
Over the past seven days, Ohio State has pulled off three straight wins that should propel this group higher than its current ranking of No. 21 in the Associated Press top-25 poll. They’ve started to turn some heads.
The challenge for the Buckeyes now is to ensure they don’t turn their own heads away from what got them to this point.
“Hopefully we can continue to move forward,” Holtmann said. “This is a fun group to coach because they've had that mindset so far.”