Ohio State was doomed for a crash landing to close a disastrous season.
Criticism of Chris Holtmann reached a fever pitch during a demoralizing losing streak that seemed to have no end in sight, and the Buckeyes hit rock bottom entering the final week of February.
Then things changed. Ohio State snapped out of its funk, won five of its final seven games and became the lowest seed to ever reach the semifinal round of the Big Ten Tournament. Before tip-off on Saturday, the Buckeyes were just two wins away from an automatic NCAA Tournament berth, and suddenly a nearly impossible prospect didn’t seem so far-fetched.
Ohio State’s season came to an end all the same, just as devoid of meaningful benchmarks as it was poised to be a month prior. But the Buckeyes’ late turnaround represented a proverbial parachute for the program, providing a far softer landing than most expected and legitimate momentum to build on moving forward.
"We have to own all of our struggles, we also have to celebrate the fact that our players turned the corner and found a way to really galvanize and be positive in this closing stretch."– Chris Holtmann
None of that happened by accident. Holtmann told 97.1 The Fan that his players made a choice to try and turn things around, and he traced it back to a specific moment in time. Amid a two-game road trip that pit Ohio State against Iowa and Purdue in a three-day span, the Buckeyes took a bowling trip in which Holtmann started to sense a switch.
The Buckeyes rallied around one another, internalized the messages from their coaching staff and everything started clicking soon after.
“I think it was player-driven. I really do. I think players had to make a decision,” Holtmann said. “‘Are we going to stay together, are we gonna trust each other, trust what’s being communicated, are we going to commit ourselves to that? And I think they really did. … Listen, I think in these situations, we have to own all of our struggles, we also have to celebrate the fact that our players turned the corner and found a way to really galvanize and be positive in this closing stretch. And it certainly was proven in our play.”
The extent of Ohio State’s struggles this season might have surprised Holtmann, but he certainly expected to face adversity. The sixth-year Buckeye coach, who had never before missed the NCAA Tournament, found he couldn’t base his feedback to the team solely on the bottom-line result. After a stretch of 14 losses in 15 games, he needed a different approach.
But once the team started to buy into the style of play that gave it the most success in spurts, Holtmann said the end results began to change.
“I think the biggest thing was, we knew there were gonna be some challenges going into the season. You don’t necessarily proclaim or make that announcement, but when you’re playing in a league as deep as our league … you knew there were gonna be some challenges,” Holtmann said. “Really the turning point for us was finding a way to celebrate really some small increments of play. And then as I mentioned in Chicago, for us, unfortunately we kind of needed to get knocked around a little bit to say, ‘Hey, there’s a way in which we’re gonna need to play.’
“We had so many new faces. Ten new players is a lot, obviously. But I just give our players a lot of credit because I think they found a way to turn the corner here to be playing really, really good basketball. And I give them a lot of credit for that. Obviously we wish we could’ve found that earlier, there’s no question about that, but it was fun to see.”
Holtmann wasn’t overly animated about his team’s success in the midst of the Big Ten Tournament run, at least not in terms of his postgame reaction in a formal interview setting. After the Buckeyes’ loss to Purdue on Saturday, Holtmann said he’d “need some time to probably process” all that went into the season before divulging his overarching thoughts.
On his radio show Monday, though, Holtmann expressed his contentment with Ohio State’s closing stretch of the season. Even if the Buckeyes aren’t participating in the Big Dance, Holtmann said the Big Ten Tournament provided an “(NCAA) Tournament-like atmosphere,” especially when you consider the competition level.
Ohio State beat an NCAA Tournament seven-seed in Michigan State, an eight-seed in Iowa and suffered its only loss in Chicago to Purdue – a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. Even Wisconsin, a No. 3 seed in the NIT, likely would have been in the NCAA Tournament had it not lost to Ohio State in the first-round matchup at the United Center. In fact, Holtmann said 21 of Ohio State’s final 24 games this season came against teams that either made the NCAA Tournament or were on the bubble.
“It was a really exciting week. Finishing the season winning five out of seven, our only losses were at Michigan State on Senior Day and then to Purdue in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament,” Holtmann said. “In both games I thought we played pretty well, in both those losses. To close 5-2, but more importantly to be playing the way we were playing was certainly a boost for us in a lot of ways, and exciting to see our group kind of come together. The amount of contributions we got from a number of guys was exciting.”
Perhaps most important in terms of late-season contributions was the play of Ohio State’s four freshmen, who all earned regular starting roles in the final month. Brice Sensabaugh, Bruce Thornton, Roddy Gayle and Felix Okpara all had breakout performances at one point or another, and while Ohio State might lose Sensabaugh to the NBA draft, it still has a rock-solid core to build around.
“We really felt this was a talented group coming in, and not just obviously what they’re able to do on the court. I think we felt like they fit exactly what we’re about, and they were able to show that throughout the course of the season,” Ohio State assistant coach Jake Diebler told 97.1 The Fan. “Certainly each one’s path was a little different. Felix was different than Roddy was different from Bruce and Brice. And all of them showed an element of toughness and kind of commitment to development because they all got better as the year went on. Even Brice, he got better as the year went on. And that says a lot about who they are as young men and gives a lot of encouragement and excitement as to what they can become next season.”
Holtmann talked all season about the leap his freshmen class could take over the offseason, but earlier on, not all of them had showcased an undeniable exhibition of their talent at the college level. Following the Big Ten Tournament, that premise will no longer require a level of assumption to seem credible.
Ohio State’s season may be over before March Madness has even truly begun, but after the events of the past few weeks, the offseason won't be nearly as bleak as it projected to be just a month ago.
“One of the things we take from this closing month is just how excited I think people who have watched us and followed us are about the future of these young players,” Holtmann said. “It’s clear that that is a really strong sentiment around (the program).”