Ohio State getting back to the NCAA tournament in his second season as coach was never a given in the eyes of coach Chris Holtmann.
Well, almost never.
After the Buckeyes received a No. 11 seed in the Midwest region and the chance to play No. 6 Iowa State on Friday night in Tulsa, Okla., the 47-year-old reviewed his thought process during the previous 48 hours.
“Yesterday I felt we were solidly on the 11 line, maybe even a 10,” he said Sunday night. “Yesterday as I studied the numbers, I studied myself into absolute paranoia. I just had to stop. Thank God we had practice so I could stop looking at it. I was worried. I mean I just got too worked up.”
Preseason predictions varied for the Buckeyes, but few if any prognosticators expected a repeat of the 2018 when Ohio State went 25-9, finished in second place in the Big Ten and received a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Holtmann did not take exception, acknowledging the loss of Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop and seniors Jae’Sean Tate, Kam Williams and Andrew Dakich would be hard to overcome.
He cautioned before the season it would likely be a challenging year and some things would have to go right for Ohio State to reach its potential.
Whether fans saw the absolute best of the 19-14 Buckeyes on a regular basis is debatable, but Holtmann was proud of what they accomplished nonetheless.
“It was really rewarding,” he said of seeing “Ohio State” pop up on the screen during the selection show. “Our players have earned this. Players win games. We have really good players that have stepped up at important times. Obviously we’ve had our struggles. There’s no doubting that, and we all take some responsibility for that, but we’ve also won some games. And we won some important games, certainly beginning with the very first one."
A 64-56 win at Cincinnati kicked off the season, a surprise outcome that resonated four months later.
Ohio State started the season 12-1 before enduring a 1-6 January.
After winning their first three in February, the Buckeyes lost three of four.
They trounced then-No. 22 Iowa 90-70 on Feb. 26 and appeared to be turning a corner only to be waylaid by a suspension to star center Kaleb Wesson, who missed the last three games of the regular season because of a violation of athletics department policy.
Ohio State likely clinched a spot in the NCAA tournament with a 79-75 win over Indiana in the Big Ten tournament before bowing out a day later in the quarterfinals with a 77-70 loss to Michigan State.
Ultimately the committee gave Ohio State the No. 41 overall seed, meaning they were within one spot of having to play an extra game as part of the First Four in Dayton.
One way or another, though, the Buckeyes were invited to the Big Dance, something senior point guard C.J. Jackson sees as an endorsement of the mark Holtmann has made on the program since taking over for Thad Matta nearly two years ago.
“I think that just shows Ohio State is back and it doesn’t look like it’s going downhill any time soon,” Jackson said. “Just the fact of how Coach Holtmann does things, how he’s changed the culture so fast.
“We knew coming into this year that a lot of people were going to count us out for different reasons. Good thing that this team didn’t let that affect us. We did what we had to do throughout the season to put ourselves in position to make the NCAA tournament so at the end of the day especially with a young team that’s all you can ask for.”
Holtmann praised Wesson, his brother Andre and Kyle Young for expanding their roles this season.
He also acknowledged his freshman class and Keyshawn Woods, a senior grad transfer from Wake Forest, for their contributions.
“Those four seniors were all very impactful, and beyond their play one of my biggest concerns was our overall leadership,” Holtmann said. “We weren’t perfect in that area by any stretch, but I knew the league was going to be good so I didn’t look at eighth, ninth, 10th (preseason projections) or whatever, seventh, and say, ‘Oh they don’t know what they’re talking about.’ It seemed right.”
Nonetheless, a coach known for outperforming expectations and adjusting to different styles of play during his previous stop at Butler is now two-for-two in his time at Ohio State.
“We’ve never coached a team where it’s been this number of new faces and you’re trying to figure out with each passing day who we are and who we’re becoming. That’s been the challenge,” Holtmann said. “And, listen, it’s been a challenging year in a lot of ways, but to see your name called is pretty special.”
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