Chris Holtmann Concerned Rust Could Impact Buckeyes Before Big Ten Gauntlet Begins, But Pleased With Non-Conference Résumé

By Griffin Strom on December 21, 2021 at 10:10 am
Chris Holtmann
Joseph Maiorana – USA TODAY Sports

This is not an ideal time for a two-and-a-half-week break in game action.

Sure, the Buckeyes would have had some time off for the holidays anyway, and the COVID-19 outbreak that canceled two of the program’s games did come amid Ohio State’s final three non-conference games of the regular season. But it’s a stretch that not only leaves just one game before the start of the Big Ten gauntlet, but also would have allowed the Buckeyes an opportunity to notch another high-profile ranked win over Kentucky.

With the momentum Ohio State had built up on its current season-high four-game win streak, Holtmann liked his chances against a Wildcat team that now ranks 20th in the country, and that’s one reason why he still wanted to play the game despite growing COVID-19 concerns in the program last week.

“That was a difficult conversation to have with our players,” Holtmann said on 97.1 The Fan Monday. “They really wanted to play in the game. It’s a rarity when you get a chance to play Duke and Kentucky. Obviously we were able to beat Duke here. I think even as good as Kentucky played on Saturday, I think we would’ve had a great shot at full strength to play well there. We were really fighting for that opportunity. 

“And honestly, we were going to do it relatively shorthanded. We were headed there with somewhat of a thin bench and some important, key players that were not going to be able to play in the game. We were headed there anyway, because we felt like we owed it to CBS Sports and we felt like we owed it to Kentucky.”

If not for injuries to Justice Sueing and Seth Towns, who Holtmann said Monday are still “weeks away” from returning to action, the Buckeyes might have had the numbers to play even with the COVID absences.

But as much as Holtmann and the Buckeyes might have wanted a crack at the Wildcats, they can rest easy knowing they’ve already piled up a couple of non-conference wins that will go a long way toward their postseason bonafides. With a Nov. 30 win over then-No. 1 Duke and a victory against current No. 15 Seton Hall just eight days before that, Ohio State is far from desperate for another quality win outside of the Big Ten.

“(The cancellation) was disappointing for everybody. But again, we’ve had a phenomenal schedule,” Holtmann said. “It's what makes you really glad that you put a really challenging schedule together in the non-conference, so that we’re not sitting here and saying, ‘Kentucky, that’s an important résumé-builder win – ugh, we can’t play in that game.’ Well, we’ve been able to bank some really good résumé-building wins and obviously we’ll have plenty of opportunities in Big Ten play.”

Holtmann said his goal every season is to capture two or three “really quality non-conference wins,” and that hitting at least two is the mark of a successful run before the bulk of Big Ten play gets underway.

Ohio State has done exactly that.

“There’s no question that the Duke win was important,” Holtmann said. “You rarely get the chance to play the No. 1 team in the country. … They’ll be what all the analytics look at, they’ll be a Quad 1 win. I think Seton Hall will be a Quad 1 win. And then you gotta win some games on the road in the league play to accumulate more Quad 1 wins.”

In order to capitalize on those chances against conference competition, the Buckeyes will need to get up to speed in a hurry. It will be a full 17 days in between games by the time Ohio State gets back on the court since its last game, and the Buckeyes will have just one warmup against New Orleans before diving back into Big Ten play for the rest of the regular season.

Ohio State’s medical staff is currently recommending the Buckeyes refrain from partaking in team activities, but Holtmann made sure any player who was able to was doing individual workouts with strength and conditioning coach Quadrian Banks before heading home for the holidays a day earlier than planned.

“I think rust, I think you fear that the timing becomes an issue,” Holtmann said. “There’s no question it’s a concern, that’s why we fully intend to play the game on the 28th and expect to play the game on the 28th because we need to get some game work. … Jake (Diebler)’s talked to his brother, Jon, about coming in and working and scrimmaging if we’re low on numbers. But some of that will be determined on the return to play progression for guys as we return from Christmas.”

Buckeye players won’t have long to enjoy Christmas, as they’ll have two practices the very next day as they return to campus, followed by another practice on Monday and a shootaround Tuesday ahead of a 6:30 p.m. tip against New Orleans.

Oh, and they won’t be run-of-the-mill practice sessions as Ohio State gets reacclimated to a regular schedule.

“They’re not fun, and they involve running and moving your body a lot, which they might not have done as much in the previous few days,” Holtmann said. “So they’re not the most enjoyable, but it’s important to get back and get moving to give ourselves a chance to play well. 

“And obviously we’re gonna have to shake some rust off, because that’s a long time to not play from the Wisconsin game to the New Orleans game.”

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