Chris Holtmann's basketball Buckeyes wrapped up a 21-10 season by losing six of their last nine games, including a 75-72 loss to 15-seed Oral Roberts in the first round the NCAA tournament.
Becoming just the ninth No. 2 seed in tournament history to fall to a 15 followed an impressive run to the Big Ten tournament championship game, via three wins in three days, offsetting a four-game losing streak to close the regular season.
The Buckeyes also won 10 of 11 games spanning a six-week period during January and February, climbing to as high as No. 4 in the national polls. But again, that unceremonious exit when victories matter most – to a 16-10 team from the Summit League, no less – took a lot of shine off a team that, even during wins, was plagued with the same defensive lapses and late game offensive execution struggles.
As such, the pressure is on Holtmann as he enters year five. Speaking of five, here are Five Things from a season featuring extreme highs and extreme lows.
THE DEFENSE RESTS
Unfortunately for Holtmann, his Buckeyes rested on defense way too much in a season that saw them struggle to get stops when needed most. Even some of the wins came as opponents cut into leads over the final four or so minutes, making outcomes far more interesting than they needed to be.
At the end of its season, Ohio State ranked No. 233 in defensive efficiency (1.015) and 185th in defending the three, allowing opponents to connect at a 34% clip. The Buckeyes also ranked No. 108 in opponent effective field goal percent (48.7%).
Closeouts and switches were constant problems on the perimeter although I would note Justice Sueing and even Musa Jallow seemed to fare the best in those spots. Justin Ahrens, maybe not so much.
The Buckeyes also struggled to put pressure on offenses to execute. Forcing a turnover on just 14.4% of opponent possessions, Ohio State ranked No. 337 out of 347 teams. That seems bad.
The lack of a dependable defense put huge pressure on Ohio State's offense to operate at a high-level and in the end, it caught up to them.
I know Duane Washington Jr.'s shot selection drew the ire of many fans, and there's no arguing he sometimes forced the issue.
That said, the dude was an absolute gamer who relished the pressure put on him to score by his coach and teammates, and was more than willing to take the important shots.
Some of those ill-advised decisions were the product of his ability to create his own shot knowing many of his teammates couldn't do the same. As such, Holtmann leaned on Washington to create when things broke down. Hell, it often felt like Holtmann might have leaned on him too much late in games before any real attempt to run an actual set play to get either Duane or another player a clean look.
When the guy was rolling, he flat out carried the team. He ultimately led Ohio State in scoring (16.4%) and shot a respectable 37.4% from three-point land. He was also forced to log extensive minutes at point guard when CJ Walker was out and even when he returned, Washington was often the primary backup, with an assist from Sueing.
If Washington can make additional strides with decision-making and shot selection next year, and if Holtmann can complement that growth by ensuring he doesn't have to play extensive minutes out of position at point guard, Duane will be a threat for first-team All-Big Ten.
Forward E.J. Liddell was obviously money for Ohio State, blossoming into a 15.2 points, 6.7 rebounds per game baller as a true sophomore. He played bigger than his 6-foot-7, 240-pound frame yet still developed his outside jumper as the season went along.
Kyle Young complemented Liddell in the paint averaging 5.5 rebounds and Sueing matched Young with 5.5 boards per night too. As of this writing, there's no clear indication if Young will return and that would be a big loss for an Ohio State team lacking frontcourt depth capable of banging with the waves of size many Big Ten teams successfully threw at the Buckeyes.
Even if Young comes back, it seems clear Holtmann could use a grad transfer power forward or center via the portal, which as of last count has about a quarter-million players in it. While he's in there, Holtmann might also read the room for a ready-now point guard unless he thinks the still very young Meechie Johnson is ready for big minutes, Jimmy Sotos is a realistic option and/or incoming high-four star Malaki Branham can see time at the point. My guess is he'll likely explore adding a guy at both the pivot and point guard spots, assuming roster numbers work, pending any transfers out of the program etc.
When you've got a big three of Liddell, Washington and Sueing, along with Branham ready to likely make an immediate impact, being aggressive in the portal, if you've got the room, feels like a must.
After sitting out the 2019-20 season following a transfer from Cal, Justice Sueing emerged as Ohio State's third-leading scorer (10.7) and rebounder (5.5) while displaying valuable versatility.
The Honolulu product reached double-figures in five of his first six games as a Buckeye, recording 19 points in his debut and averaging 14. He flashed an ability to step beyond the arc, finish at the rim in traffic and get to the free throw line. Looking for shots behind Liddell and Washington in the pecking order, he had an opportunity to be a little more aggressive at certain points in the season.
Sueing's effectiveness in getting to the stripe (124 attempts) was bested only by Liddell's 169 attempts and comes into clearer focus when you take stock of the fact Sueing took 111 less field goal attempts and was generally less-featured in the overall game plan. In a rugged Big Ten, collecting fouls and cashing in is a skill Ohio State can continue to benefit from.
A slight bump in offensive production from Sueing would be a nice boost for Holtmann next year. Sueing took five shots or less and scored six points or less in eight of 31 games and with his efficiency, pushing him to do more should only help Ohio State's potentially lethal offense. Count me as really excited for the growing impact he can have next year at both ends of the floor.
Next season will be Holtmann's fifth in Columbus and the time has arrived for his Buckeyes to take a meaningful step forward when it matters most.
The Buckeyes did finish in a second place tie in the Big Ten in his first year, notably with a roster full of Matta holdovers but the last three seasons saw the program finish eighth, fifth and fifth in the regular season standings.
Holtmann is also 2-3 in the NCAA tournament, earning a trip each of his four seasons although last year's event was obviously wiped out due to COVID-19. This year's loss to Oral Roberts marked the first time his Buckeyes fell to a worse seed but the fact remains Ohio State hasn't gotten out of the opening weekend under his guidance just yet.
After earning that No. 2 seed on the strength of some impressive wins against highly ranked opponents, and even rising to as high as No. 4 in the AP Poll in February, the 2020-21 Buckeyes absolutely had their moments.
But it's fair to expect a little more in both the conference standings and postseason play as Holtmann enters Year Five. Fortunately, even if Young departs, Holtmann has some real solid pieces of the puzzle in place, Branham could be a star in the making and some help via the grad transfer route should only sweeten the pot.
You can bet Holtmann's expectations are every bit as high as yours, if not higher.