Jared Sullinger and David Lighty Believe Chris Holtmann's Firing “Was Needed,” Aaron Craft Says Other Programs Are Calling Bruce Thornton's Mom “Nonstop”

By Josh Poloha on February 20, 2024 at 9:20 am

While Ohio State firing Chris Holtmann at some point over the next few months seemed inevitable given the trajectory of the team over the last season-plus, it caught the coaching staff, players and many others by surprise given the timing.

After Holtmann was fired last Wednesday, there were plenty of opinions, both big and small, about Ohio State's decision to do so mid-season. Although interim head coach Jake Diebler led the Buckeyes to a big-time upset over then-No.2-ranked Purdue on Sunday, there remain plenty more questions than answers in terms of the future of OSU's men's basketball program.

Following the news, Adam Jardy of The Columbus Dispatch and former Ohio State players Aaron Craft, David Lighty and Jared Sullinger discussed Holtmann’s firing, what it means, the future of OSU hoops and much more on the latest episode of CarXen’s Crew, a podcast hosted by former Ohio State players on the Beyond the Big 10 network.

While Lighty and Sullinger didn't place the Buckeyes' struggles solely on Holtmann, the pair believe that the change “was needed” to give the team a spark with a “fresh face” in charge. While there are still six games remaining in the regular season, Sunday's upset seemed to prove those remarks correct.

Craft also revealed that teams from across the country are already trying to recruit Bruce Thornton away from Ohio State – even though he’s not even in the transfer portal – as his mom has been receiving calls from coaches all over the country since the news of Holtmann’s firing broke last Wednesday.

You can watch the full podcast in the video at the top of the page. We listened through the episode and highlighted the most notable parts of the conversation below. (Note: The podcast was recorded at the end of last week before Ohio State's game against the Boilermakers).

0:20 - Reaction to Holtmann getting fired during the season

David Lighty: "I thought it was a shock for me. I thought if any changes would happen from the Ohio State Buckeyes in a coach position, I thought it would be at the end of the season. But Gene (Smith) hit us with one and said we're gonna get that started now for some reason."

Adam Jardy: "This is something that nobody within the program saw coming. This was a complete shock to the coaching staff, the players, everybody in that locker room. There was certainly a realization that if this did not turn around that this was going to be the last year but everybody was operating under the assumption that this was at least going to get until the end of the season before any sort of decision would be made."

Aaron Craft: "It was a shock for sure. It's kind of an unprecedented move in a college setting, I feel like. You know, as pros, I feel like we've dealt with this kind of thing and figuring it out but from a college standpoint, it's a little unique."

Jared Sullinger: "I think it was needed though. There's no shot to Chris Holtmann but just sometimes, you need a fresh face and to be honest with you, whoever took that job after Thad Matta, that was a hell job because Coach Matta had set a standard on Ohio State basketball. If you couldn’t produce to that standard, then it was on to the next one. It was very unfair for Coach Holtmann to come into there in the situation that he did in June, mind you. Didn't really get to create his team, his culture right away the way he wants to.

"So it's unfortunate events but at the same time, I'm excited for Jake Diebler to showcase what he can do as the head guy. This is a guy that, for a lot of people that don't know this guy, that literally helped us out in the summertime when we needed him there. People don't know that Jake used to work us out and then Jake used to also play with us so this is somebody that, you know, I can trust because I've been there before with him in the gym, so the countless hours of his development, saw the countless hours of him playing basketball so I feel comfortable with Jake being on that sideline and showing his ranks."

Lighty: "There definitely is a lot into it but I think it's kind of like you said, Sully, that was needed. I think Gene said that in his interview, he wanted to try and give the team a spark."

8:09 - A “live interview” for Diebler the rest of the season

Sullinger: "I think there's going to be a big change. Not only offensively and defensively, but I think mindset. Mentally, you're hearing a fresh new voice. Instead of Holtmann taking you out, it's Jake DIebler taking you out. You know, it's a mental thing."

The group discusses how it's a “live interview” for Diebler and the Ohio State players, whether it's to stick with the Buckeyes next season (and beyond) or for other programs. Diebler taking over also gives the interim head coach time to put in his game plan and philosophy now that he's leading the team.

Craft: "With Jake, I think he's handling this great. I think he feels he's been very honest and real with the players which I think is the way to go. Like Jake has a baby due soon and his future is very uncertain and he just kind of put himself out there and said he knows that all the players' futures are very uncertain at this point too. So he's just trying to walk as he's preaching and just trying to put it all out there like live day by day, kind of like what's the next thing and I think he's doing that well.

"From like a tryout standpoint, if Jake does well, whether he potentially gets looks for head coach jobs or not, you know if he does well and you're the new coach coming in, you have a desire to want to keep Bruce (Thornton) and Roddy (Gayle) and maybe Felix (Okpara). Jake's probably the closest guy to them and then he's the guy closest to a lot of these recruits coming in from Ohio that kind of created a relationship. So if you're a new coach coming in and you want to keep building through those guys and maybe keep the higher recruiting class we have, you may consider keeping Jake if he does well and kind of proves himself over this next month. There's just a lot on the line for everyone."

13:29 - Other programs already contacting Bruce Thornton's mom

Given the fact that other programs would get in trouble for tampering if they contacted Ohio State’s players because no Ohio State players have entered the transfer portal yet, Craft said that teams from across the country are finding ways to contact Thornton's family rather than Bruce himself.

"Talking to Bruce yesterday after practice, I completely underestimated this kind of fallout with the way college basketball is now," Craft said. "Other coaches, other programs can't talk to him specifically, but he said from the moment rumors went out that Holtmann was going to get fired – so like a 40-hour window – his mom was on the phone non-stop talking to X program or X coach and trying to figure out what Bruce was trying to think about doing.

"So that's a whole ’nother layer of like ‘How am I mentally going to focus in on this game that I have coming up when my mom's out here fielding phone call after phone call?’ So think that's just another added layer of challenge for these guys. They're like 19 years old and you're expected to be a professional, which comes with time and experience, but also trying to focus in."

14:45 - The standard for Ohio State men's basketball

Craft: "Making the decision now would, I think, start us on that path of saying they want to take basketball seriously. There was a guy from our NIL foundation there (on Thursday) and he was kind of talking about the expectation and potentially some of the money we have and what we were hoping to do with it. So I think there's a buzz and I think there are people in powerful positions that are feeling the same way we are."

19:57 - The timing

Sullinger: "Timing is everything if you think about it. Everbody's hired around Final Four weekend, that are finished. So it kind of gives us the head start instead of firing somebody through the NCAA tournament, we're probably going to be doing those interviews and getting things done compared to a lot of teams where they're done by the Big Ten tournament and then all of a sudden they fire their coach and now they get to start their process.

"We get to start our process lightyears earlier than everybody else and really get to vet those people that we really want to sit on our sideline and take us to the promised land."

23;23 - Key players need to play more

Craft: "We played with six guys. They don't need a break. And we're at a point in the season where it's make it or a break it. You'd have to drag me off the floor."

Sullinger: "Unless you play an NBA schedule, you can play 40 minutes a night (in college). You got TV timeouts that are three minutes (under 16, 12, eight and four), you have your regular timeouts, you got the dead balls, you got all the times the refs don't know about clocks and they have to clock. You have nothing but time to rest. The whole resting stuff in college, especially college basketball, is total bull crap. You can find ways to rest your players without taking them out of the game."

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