Earlier this week, Chris Holtmann joined Ryan Day on a call with some donors. Perhaps there, somebody asked Ohio State’s football head coach about the Michigan and the basketball team’s head coach heard him, because on Friday afternoon ahead of the impending top-five matchup between the Buckeyes and Wolverines, he channeled a message of respect for the rivalry once frequently used by Urban Meyer that Day co-opted and evidently taught Holtmann.
“We understand what the game in football is, and I recognize the importance of that to our fan base,” Holtmann said. “It's important to our players. I think the best way to honor a rivalry is to respect it for what it is and to try to bring your best competitive stuff to it. That's what we're going to try to do. That's what we've tried to do. They have a tremendous program. They have for a number of years now. (Juwan Howard has) done a phenomenal job. John (Beilein) did a phenomenal job, clearly. It's a tremendous program. We've got great respect for them. We're going to need to play our very best.”
All eyes in the sport will be watching what goes down inside the Schottenstein Center on Sunday. An argument could be made that the game between two teams currently projected as No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament will be the most important in college basketball during the regular season.
The Buckeyes, now 18-4 overall while sitting in third place in the Big Ten as the No. 4 team in the country, have beaten both Illinois and Iowa but have yet to slay – or even play – Michigan, which holds onto first in the conference. The Wolverines, playing once again after a COVID-19-induced pause, are ranked No. 3 with a 15-1 record, along with a 10-1 mark within the conference. The sole blemish on the résumé is a mid-January loss at Minnesota.
“That's a big game for not just me as a player but Ohio State as a program. That's a really big game for us,” point guard CJ Walker said after beating Penn State on Thursday. “I know we're going to go out there and play as hard as we can and try to win. Play against the best and beat the best. That's what we want to do. We're going to play them at their best, and we're going to give our best. The best is going to win at the end of the night. I feel like our team is capable of doing that. Most definitely a big game that you circle and get excited for.”
Holtmann, a little less than 72 hours before the game tips off 1 p.m. Sunday on ESPN, sat down with the media for a press conference on Friday afternoon. Here are the fourth-year head coach’s first thoughts on the much-anticipated clash of Big Ten powers.
- On Michigan, in general: “Obviously we have a tremendous opponent on Sunday. I think everybody's well aware of how good they are. They're phenomenal. They're a legitimate national title contender. I really believe that. I think Juwan has done an amazing job. He's continued on with this really phenomenal run that they've had in the past 10 years. You look at John's last two teams, I believe, won 63 games and played on Monday night and got to a Sweet 16, and I really believe that this current team that Juwan has would have had a 30-plus-win season, too, if we'd have had a full season. He's deserving of every accolade. They've got tremendous depth and talent, and they've added to those younger guys that are now older – (Isaiah) Livers. Retaining (Franz) Wagner was huge for them, the younger brother because he's such a gifted and talented player.”
- On the type of team Michigan has: “Honestly, they very much take on the personality of coach Howard in that they play smart, composed, tough, highly-competitive. It's kind of the way that I remember him playing. So, great challenge. I know we've got to get our guys right physically after last night. That's been our focus here today, along with preparing for these guys.”
- On Michigan’s unselfishness: “I think it's what you see right now with every team right now that's performing at an elite level is they are an extremely unselfish group. Extremely unselfish. I think you find that thread with every team right now that is playing at an elite level. They've got a ton of weapons. Hunter (Dickinson) has really provided them, he's got great size. He's 7-2 and he's got really good length. Austin Davis backs him up and he's good and physical and a challenge. But then their wings – when I say wings, Wagner's in that group, Livers – I know those guys are on draft boards, and for good reason. They're really good players. Those guys present challenges because of their versatility.”
- On whether Michigan’s COVID-19 pause affected its play: “I can probably give you a better answer when I completely finish my viewing of them. You've not seen a tremendous drop-off. I think you see that in a number of teams, but I think in the elite teams, you've not really seen much of a drop-off after a COVID break. I think Baylor may be on one now or maybe coming off one – I don't know, I get lost with all that. But they'll be the same, I'm sure. They appear to honestly not have skipped a beat from how good they were playing before.”
- On not having fans: “I miss the fact that our fans can't enjoy these final games here. Three our of four games are going to be at home are going to be top-10 opponents. But this one in particular, I hate it that our fans can't be in the building, and I hate that for our players. It's a great opportunity and great for college basketball.”
- On Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell saying Michigan is the best Big Ten team he has seen in five years: “They are phenomenal, just phenomenal on that end. They're big, they're long, they're physical. For Steve to say that, that is a big statement – the best team he's seen in four years, five years. That is a big statement because Michigan State's been to a Final Four. Purdue was a tough play away from another Final Four. You've had some incredible teams come through here. It's quite a thought there.”
- On Michigan’s defense: “They're an elite defensive team. Elite. And they were an elite defensive team, I believe, in what was it 2019, one of John's teams that went to the Sweet 16, and then the year before his team that went to the final game and played, I believe, Villanova, was an elite defensive team, too, I believe. So those were two elite defensive teams. This is an elite defensive team, as well.”
- On what he can draw from Michigan’s loss to Minnesota: “I thought Minnesota was really good that night. And we know what that feels like, right? We've been through that. I thought they were really good that night. They had a lot to do with that game being where it was. You know, you always look at games like that. They haven't lost much, so you're always looking at that game and trying to see what you can figure out. They had a close game earlier in the conference season against Penn State – I believe a four-point game. So you're looking at those things. But in that game, I think for whatever reason, teams have went up to Minnesota and really struggled. A lot of that's a credit to Minnesota.”