Chris Holtmann has reason to be confident about Ohio State’s incoming freshmen.
Ohio State’s recruiting class of 2022 is the highest-rated class the Buckeyes have signed since Holtmann became their head coach. And Holtmann’s excitement was palpable as he talked about it during a Thursday night appearance on 97.1 The Fan’s The Buckeye Show.
“I think we're really excited about this class, we're excited about the future,” Holtmann said. “We're excited about what we feel like this young group can be and just the coming years. We really are. I think when you have four guys that are in the top 60 in the country that all play kind of a different position and meet real needs for us, it's exciting to be able to work with guys that we believe have really, really bright futures in Buckeye uniforms.”
Ohio State’s 2022 freshman class includes five players, four of whom are ranked among the top 60 prospects in 247Sports’ composite rankings. Wing Roddy Gayle Jr. leads the class as the No. 40 overall prospect in the rankings, but point guard Bruce Thornton (42nd), center Felix Okpara (56th) and forward Brice Sensabaugh (59th) are not far behind. Bowen Hardman, a three-star in-state shooting guard ranked No. 300 overall, rounds out a class ranked as the sixth-best in the country for the 2022 cycle.
Asked specifically about the four top-60 prospects, Holtmann said he expects all four of them to contribute immediately as freshmen.
“Certainly all four will play,” Holtmann said. “Felix, our big kid’s going to need some time … he’s 6-11 with a 7-3 wingspan, but he's only about 215 right now. So he's going to need some time to grow, but he's going to play. All four of those guys are going to play. And now it's our job, I think we have a phenomenal player development program, and I think we've got to continue to do that.”
“I think when you have four guys that are in the top 60 in the country that all play kind of a different position and meet real needs for us, it's exciting to be able to work with guys that we believe have really, really bright futures in Buckeye uniforms.”– Chris Holtmann on Ohio State’s freshman class
When asked by his former player Joey Lane who Lane’s favorite player would be among this year’s newcomers, Holtmann highlighted Sensabaugh as a player who could be a difference-maker. Holtmann even compared Sensabaugh to former Ohio State guard Duane Washington Jr., even though he is three inches taller than Washington at 6-foot-6.
“He's physically one of the most unique players we've coached,” Holtmann said of Sensabaugh. “He’s Duane in a 6-6 frame … He's as good of a shooter as there is in the country as a freshman.
“He was Mr. Basketball in Florida, (Thornton was) Mr. Basketball in Georgia, and those are two great states for hoops. So both he and Bruce and all those guys have bright futures.”
Ohio State is going to need its freshmen to make an immediate impact, as it returns only two players – juniors Zed Key and Eugene Brown – who played in more than two games last season. Justice Sueing and Seth Towns are expected to be back on the floor in 2022-23 after they were sidelined by injuries, while redshirt freshman Kalen Etzler will debut after redshirting last year. The rest of the roster, however, is brand new.
That includes a trio of transfer guards: Tanner Holden (who previously played at Wright State), Isaac Likekele (Oklahoma State) and Sean McNeil (West Virginia). All of them are seniors who will certainly be expected to play major roles right away, and Holtmann is optimistic about what they’ll bring to the table, as well.
“I think we had a really strong addition with some transfers. Which we needed to,” Holtmann said. “This was a year unlike any we've had in that you just had a lot of guys, some that you expected that were obviously going to graduate or out of eligibility and then a guy like Malaki (Branham), who just had a phenomenal one-and-done season.”
Holtmann doesn’t want to have to rely on transfers as much in the future as Ohio State will have to this season. Knowing the Buckeyes would have significant roster turnover this offseason, Holtmann said the staff’s priority was bringing in a large class of high school recruits. But Ohio State didn’t originally anticipate Branham entering the NBA draft after just one season, and he says recruiting the transfer portal has become a necessity in modern college basketball.
“In this day and age, you certainly can't ignore the importance of the transfer portal,” Holtmann said. “College basketball is not like college football where you're going to get a good player and keep them for three years. I wish it was like that in a lot of ways. But it's not like that, nor will it ever be. So there's going to be naturally a little more roster turnover, and in some cases, significantly more.”
That said, Holtmann says the Buckeyes generally want at least two-thirds of their roster to be players they have recruited and developed out of high school, which made bringing in a strong freshman class the top priority going into the 2022-23 season. Now, Holtmann says, “the key will be player development and then keeping this group together for a couple of years.”
“There's always a tremendous amount of pressure when you're recruiting because you want to recruit fits and high-level players. But there was a lot riding on this class, and our staff did a great job, they really did a phenomenal job,” Holtmann said. “And now we've got to develop them.”
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Holtmann, who just received a three-year contract extension from Ohio State last week, understands there is an expectation for his program to accomplish more than it has so far in his tenure. While the Buckeyes have made the NCAA Tournament every year, they have yet to win a Big Ten title or make a Sweet 16.
But Holtmann believes the talent coming in gives Ohio State the potential to do big things. And while the next season is still more than five months away, Holtmann says the Buckeyes are already working hard to try to make that happen.
“No one's hungrier than I think we are as a staff or as a program to continue to move this thing forward,” Holtmann said. “And that's what we're working really hard for every day.”