One word came to mind for Gene Smith when summing up his thoughts on the job Chris Holtmann has done with the Ohio State men’s basketball program.
The three-year contract extension and $500,000 salary increase Holtmann received in May already served as a clear indication of Smith’s approval for what the Buckeye head coach has accomplished in five seasons in Columbus. Perhaps more than that, it was a vote of confidence in what the program could achieve in the near future given more time under Holtmann’s leadership.
In an exclusive interview with Eleven Warriors’ Dan Hope this past week, Ohio State’s athletic director praised the momentum Holtmann and company have built on the recruiting trail – specifically their top-10 nationally ranked 2022 class – which he believes will yield breakthrough success for the program in the years to come.
“When you look at the culture that we have and the student-athletes that we recruit and we got the number one class in the Big Ten this year, top-five nationally, and then you meet the young men like I have this summer and watch them work out – they're exceptionally talented,” Smith said. “And so the future's bright, and you have good leadership returning from last year and this team has a chance to be special for the long run. Chris and I have talked about that. Hopefully we have young men who will be with us for a while.”
Ohio State has yet to make it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament under Holtmann, and Holtmann has not yet raised a Big Ten championship banner in the Schottenstein Center. But including the COVID-19-shortened 2019-20 season, all five of his Buckeye teams have (or would have) earned an at-large bid to the Big Dance, which is something only Thad Matta has done at Ohio State before Holtmann.
“If we’re able to maintain some stability over time, good coaches have a great opportunity to truly build a culture the right way and it's really a beautiful thing.”– Gene Smith
Holtmann has turned in five straight 20-win seasons with the Buckeyes, a feat equaled by only Kansas and Oregon among Power 5 programs. That level of consistency was rewarded over the offseason, as Holtmann’s new contract would have put him among the top-20 highest-paid coaches in college basketball last season, with only Michigan State’s Tom Izzo earning a higher salary in the Big Ten.
Holtmann’s contract extension came in tandem with Ohio State football coach Ryan Day receiving an extension that tied him with Mel Tucker for the Big Ten’s highest-paid football coach.
“I've always felt that we needed to compensate our coaches, and particularly football and basketball, at the top of the conference and consistent with our expectations. And I really felt that both of them (Holtmann and Day) earned that opportunity,” Smith said. “I'm a big believer of stability. If we're able to maintain some stability over time, good coaches have a great opportunity to truly build a culture the right way and it's really a beautiful thing. So I'm excited about it.
“This is a different world than 10, 15, 20 years ago, or in terms of the ecosystem that we served, or recruiting and the transfer portal or NIL that we talked about, and all those type of things. So stability is critical, particularly in a time of change. So I wanted to make sure that we had two good coaches who got to be with us for a while and compensating them consistent with the market and expectations I think is always the right thing to do.”
Smith is well aware that Holtmann hasn’t reached the peaks that his predecessor did in Columbus, given the five Big Ten regular season titles, four conference tournament championships and two Final Four appearances on Matta’s résumé. Had injuries to key players not been a factor this past year, though, Smith thinks the Buckeyes could have gone deeper in the NCAA Tournament.
Smith made specific reference to sixth-year forward Justice Sueing, who missed all but two games last season dealing with a hernia issue. Sueing entered the season as a projected top-two scorer on the team and a vital do-it-all cog for the Buckeyes.
“You just have to really pay attention to everything around the program. Basketball's really fragile with injuries and if certain players didn't get hurt at the end of the year last year, it would have been a different story for us,” Smith said. “And I'm looking forward to seeing Justice Sueing hopefully have a full season after he's recovered from his challenges. And his leadership and just his savviness on the floor with these young puppies that we have coming in.”
The young players Smith mentioned include five freshmen, four of whom are ranked among the top 65 overall prospects in the 2022 class, with Bruce Thornton, Roddy Gayle, Felix Okpara, Brice Sensabaugh and Bowen Hardman all coming aboard this summer. Paired with three transfer portal additions, Ohio State has eight new scholarship players on the 2022-23 roster.
Even with that mix of high-level talent on paper, betting on a career-best season for Holtmann may not be wise considering the number of new faces he must coalesce in short order. Not to mention, the Buckeyes lost their two top players from a year ago – E.J. Liddell and Malaki Branham – to the NBA draft in June.
Between its head coach and promising new nucleus, Smith still has plenty of faith in this year’s team and the future of the program nonetheless.
“They're talented, I've seen them work out. I know how good these young guys are,” Smith said. “But you need to try and hold onto them and you need to play them. And Chris and I have talked about that a little bit, is we will always have student-athletes who come in from the transfer portal, but when you have a class like he's got, you just got to play them and take the bruises that you'll take because they're young and inexperienced.
“But you're building for the future and that's what it's all about.”