This past men’s basketball season was one most Buckeye fans would rather forget. And perhaps many already have.
But if anyone needed reminding, here’s a brief refresher: Ohio State’s 16-19 record represented its fewest wins and worst winning percentage in 19 years. The Buckeyes’ nine-game, monthlong losing streak was their longest since 1997-98, which was also the last time the program had a worse regular-season conference win percentage. Not to mention, Ohio State missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Thad Matta’s final season at the helm of the program in 2016-17.
That said, Gene Smith doesn’t think Chris Holtmann’s performance as head coach is on the decline. In an exclusive interview with Eleven Warriors, the Ohio State athletic director expressed his sustained support for the job Holtmann has done – and his faith in what Holtmann can eventually accomplish – during his tenure with the Buckeyes.
“I think Chris is still the person that we hired and did so well in his early years. He's a good teacher, first and foremost,” Smith said. “All of us can sit back and think about previous years to this one and think about things that were done by players who were playing above their capacity, because he put them in position to win and he helped teach them things that allowed them to win. And so he's a good teacher, first and foremost.”
And whether or not fans realized it ahead of last season, Smith said he and Holtmann knew 2022-23 would be something of a rebuilding year for the Buckeyes. Smith cited the departure of one-and-done NBA draftee Malaki Branham as something Ohio State couldn’t have foreseen ahead of time, which put more pressure on the Buckeyes’ four top freshmen to perform right away this past year.
Smith said it was crucial for Holtmann to provide opportunities for Brice Sensabaugh, Bruce Thornton, Roddy Gayle and Felix Okpara as true freshmen, or else some of them may have looked to transfer out of the program following a tumultuous season. Of course, as that unit was given an uptick in responsibility, the Buckeyes started to flourish late in the year. Ohio State won two of its last three games to end the regular season and managed to make it to the semifinal round of the Big Ten Tournament as a No. 13 seed, becoming the first team to do so.
OUR HONOR DEFEND WELL FIGHT TO THE END FOR O-HI-O pic.twitter.com/g9oP7RDNhf— Ohio State Hoops (@OhioStateHoops) March 10, 2023
Smith credited Holtmann’s coaching prowess for helping lead the late turnaround, which served as a positive note on which to end an otherwise disappointing campaign.
“We needed to adjust. And this (past) year, going into it, I knew it was gonna be one of those adjustment years,” Smith said. “We needed to get our roster right. Nobody thought that Malaki would emerge like he did, it kind of reminds me back to when Michael Conley emerged during that championship season. But we still had a lot coming back. This one, we had a great freshman class coming in. And we needed to get them on the court.
“If we didn't get them on the court, (we) would be sitting here talking about their transferring. At the end of the day, when the season was over, they'd be looking back at their minutes and trying to decide their future. But they played a lot, did a great job at the end, Chris put them in position to win. I think we saw the best of him towards the end of the season with that eight- or nine-game stretch.”
As for Smith’s expectations in 2023-24, he echoed the standards he has often set for the program throughout Holtmann’s tenure. Smith wants the Buckeyes to return to the NCAA Tournament and be in the mix to win a Big Ten championship.
"Chris is aware, that's always been part of our goals is to be in the hunt for the championship, and then ultimately get in the dance and chase. ... I feel Confident."– Gene Smith on expectations for 2023-24
And while Smith would like Ohio State to be among the 15 best programs in the country, he acknowledged that the Buckeyes don’t necessarily have to be to accomplish some of their goals.
“You want to have an opportunity for this team to be one of those top 15 teams. And the main thing is, even if you're not, you want to be in the hunt. I mean, you can be in the hunt and not be top-15,” Smith said. “And so you want to be in the hunt. With so many games, so much national competition and so many things you have to watch, at the end of the day, you want to be in the hunt for the Big Ten Championship and you want to be in the NCAA Tournament. And then with the NCAA Tournament, as you well know, you got to get lucky and get that right bracket, right? You gotta get that right roadmap. And so Chris is aware, that's always been part of our goals is to be in the hunt for the championship, and then ultimately get in the dance and chase. And so I feel good about that, I feel confident.”
Smith is excited about both the returning young core of Ohio State’s roster, which will include sophomores Thornton, Gayle and Okpara, as well as the incoming freshmen and three new transfer portal additions. Smith singled out Minnesota transfer forward Jamison Battle as a particularly crucial piece to the Buckeyes’ 2023-24 puzzle. With four years of college experience and two as either a first- or second-scoring option at the Big Ten level, Smith thinks Battle will provide some much-needed balance to the Ohio State roster.
“(We) can sit here and go through each player and talk about their talents and skills and actually talk about who's coming in. I really think the Battle addition was major,” Smith said. “He's a big, strong, experienced man that's gonna bring some maturity to that team. And so I feel good about where we are.”
But with the new season still five months away from tipping off in earnest, Smith is just excited to see the new group up close and personal when it begins practice sessions this summer.
“I have a lot of confidence in Chris and his staff and I'm really, really anxious to see these guys get a chance in the summertime to see them play pickup against players who come back from overseas,” Smith said. “I can't wait to see the David Lightys and Othello Hunters and Ron Lewis's and all those guys compete against these guys.”