By the time the Buckeyes return to action on Dec. 28, it will have been 17 days since they last played a game.
Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said Monday on his weekly radio show that the program “fully intends” to play New Orleans in eight days after COVID-19 forced a temporary pause in team activities and back-to-back game cancellations for the Buckeyes.
The news that Ohio State would have to nix Saturday’s CBS Sports Classic matchup with Kentucky came suddenly this past Thursday, just hours after Holtmann appeared at a press conference to preview the game. But the Buckeye coach said multiple members of the fully vaccinated program began to show signs of COVID-19 early last week, albeit only "light symptoms."
Our game vs. Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic Saturday has been cancelled due to positive COVID-19 results within the Buckeye basketball program. The game, scheduled to be played in Las Vegas, will not be rescheduled.— Ohio State Hoops (@OhioStateHoops) December 16, 2021
Holtmann said the Buckeyes would still have played the game shorthanded, but that more positive tests continued to pop up, Ohio State eventually decided against making the trip to Las Vegas.
“Had it been a home game, potentially we would’ve just continued on and if guys had symptoms we might’ve tested them,” Holtmann said. “The fact that we were traveling to Las Vegas and the fact that if someone had symptoms in Las Vegas we would’ve had to test them and they would’ve had to stay there for 10 days – ultimately the decision was made, ‘Hey, let’s test everybody on Thursday morning, let’s expedite the results and figure out where to go from there.’ We popped up additional tests and we just weren’t able to field enough guys to play in a game like that.”
As recently as Sunday night, Holtmann said there were still conversations about salvaging a future game against the Wildcats. Holtmann thought the Buckeyes had “a great shot at full strength” to compete with Kentucky. Holtmann said he spoke with Kentucky head coach John Calipari on the phone and both coaches suggested possible dates to reschedule a matchup between the two programs.
“He called me last night because it’s public knowledge now that their Louisville game was canceled. He talked to me about playing on Wednesday there and then returning the game next year. We just couldn’t do it,” said Holtmann, whose Buckeyes also had to cancel Tuesday's home matchup against UT Martin. “Just numbers-wise, but I tried like crazy. I was throwing out after-Christmas dates … he had a very willing partner in us, we just don’t have the numbers. They have some post-Christmas games that they have to get in, so do we. Again, even shorthanded, we would've done that on Wednesday, but it’s just combined with our injuries, the numbers just don’t make it work.”
Holtmann said if injured forwards Justice Sueing and Seth Towns were healthy and available, Ohio State would likely be able to field a team even with the COVID-19 absences, but both players are still “weeks” away from returning. Holtmann said the guideline the team followed a year ago was a minimum of eight active players in order to play a game.
The Buckeyes will now take a break for the holidays, but Holtmann said the team will return to have two practice sessions on Sunday and another on Monday in order to shake some rust off ahead of the Dec. 28 matchup with New Orleans. Holtmann said there will be ongoing conversations about how soon players who tested positive in the past week can ramp up their activity level in the meantime.
Holtmann said the Buckeyes will return to testing for COVID-19 “only if you have symptoms” after conducting more thorough testing in the wake of the outbreak.
Given the vaccination rate of the program and that players have experienced only mild symptoms, Holtmann said it’s possible that players who test positive could be allowed to return sooner moving forward, depending on rulings from a Big Ten board.
“I think there’s already some adjustment in terms of if you’re vaccinated and you have limited symptoms, what’s your process to return? I think that’s already going to be looked at to be expedited a little bit if you have limited symptoms and you’re fully vaccinated,” Holtmann said. “I think what most people are seeing is we probably shouldn’t treat this like we did a year-and-a-half ago when it comes to athletes because they’re fully vaccinated.
“But again, we’re all taking the guidance from our medical people, who have been fantastic for us. But they’re obviously always going to err on the side of making sure they are protecting the athletes, which we agree with.”
With a return date in sight, though, the Buckeyes are hopeful they will have made it through the worst of their COVID-19 troubles this season by the time they get back on the court next week.