Coach Chris Holtmann’s first two Ohio State basketball squads have outperformed preseason expectations.
With the Big Ten’s best recruiting class coming in, that feat figures to be harder to duplicate in year three.
That is fine with him.
“I didn’t get into coaching college basketball at the highest level to be fearful of expectations,” Holtmann said Wednesday in his season-wrap-up press conference at the Schottenstein Center. “I also realize, as so many of you guys do, that those way-too-early lists are meaningless. Check the history, right? I think one of the lists last year seven of those top 25 teams didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. Four of them had losing seasons, didn’t play in any postseason.”
He went on to say he is all for such things that bring attention to college basketball, and he admitted he uses an older and more traditional form of media as one measuring stick for his program.
“I don’t think I’ve said this before to this group, but one of the things we tried to do and wanted to do as quickly as we could when we got the job was to become relevant as a program,” he said.
As such, Holtmann recalled in the fall of 2017 checking out the preseason magazines at a store near where he lives and finding one that had not his new team but another Big Ten squad on the cover, something he said he will never forget. (Most of the traditional preseason magazines have a half-dozen or so regional covers to cater to local audiences.)
“I thought to me that was a significant statement to how relevant our program was at the time,” he said, stressing he did not mean that as an indictment of the job predecessor Thad Matta did overall. “Obviously no one had this program more relevant than Thad for a number of years, but that’s where it was, and the challenge was how do we get that?”
A year later, Holtmann found senior guard C.J. Jackson on the cover, “and I felt good. I felt warm and fuzzy on the inside,” he said with a low-key sarcasm that is becoming a staple of his public appearances.
“So we’re taking steps, but I think we’ve got a lot to prove before we feel like we are where we need to be.”
If the earliest rankings for next season are any indication — and they might not be considering many teams can and will have significant roster turnover between now and September when preseason practice begins — Holtmann can expect to see his team on multiple magazine covers this fall.
A survey of eight lists published shortly after Virginia beat Texas Tech for the national championship found Ohio State ranked anywhere from 27th (SBNation.com) to fourth (FoxSports) with an average rank of 14th.
Here are six more takeaways from Holtmann’s season-ending press conference:
1. Kaleb Wesson is entering the NBA draft.
The Buckeyes’ top scorer is likely to be back for his junior season, but he is taking advantage of NCAA rules that allow players to hire an agent and be evaluated by the league advisory board and teams without losing their college eligibility.
He can use such information to decide he is ready to go pro, or he can take it back with him to school and use it to improve his game.
2. The Buckeyes are in need of another big man.
Even with Wesson expected back, Holtmann would like to find another center to back him up.
That could be a transfer or a member of the 2019 class.
3. With assistant coach Mike Schrage accepting the head coach positing at Elon, Holtmann has a hole to fill on his on-court coaching staff.
Holtmann said two members of his support staff — special assistant to the head coach Mike Netti and director of recruiting and player development Scoonie Penn — will be considered for the job as part of a larger pool of candidates.
Netti worked for Holtmann at Gardner-Webb and spent four seasons at East Carolina before joining Holtmann in Columbus two years ago.
Penn was a star point guard for Ohio State’s 1999 Final Four team and has been working at his alma mater for the past two seasons.
4. He is happy with what he saw from his freshman this season.
Holtmann hopes to have program building blocks in 2018 signees Luther Muhammad, Duane Washington Jr. and Justin Ahrens.
“All four of them had really good moments,” Holtmann said, including forward Jaedon Ledee, who is transferring. “Dwayne, Luther and Justin had moments where they were impactful in us winning games and had really positive stretches of the season. And they had other moments as they told me during one-on-one meetings where they saw it was harder than they thought, so it’s good. They all three had significant moments and I think that is only gonna help them moving forward. They all three need to have tremendous offseasons. The clock moving forward four months doesn’t guarantee you’re better as a player.”
5. He is excited about what he could get from his incoming freshmen next season.
The trio Holtmann signed last November is the source of much of the national optimism for Ohio State’s next team.
D.J. Carton of Bettendorf, Iowa, is the No. 28 prospect in the country and the No. 4 point guard while forward Alonzo Gaffney of Brewster Academy in New Hampshire is No. 42 overall and the No. 10 small forward and E.J. Liddell of Belleville (Ill.) West is No. 45 overall and the No. 8 power forward.
Together they form the No. 1 recruiting class in the Big Ten according to 247Sports.
“(Gaffney) is going to have to find a level of consistency in performance and effort that is — he’s so gifted — it’s just as we’ve seen in his high school career right now, he’s got to find a level of consistency and performance, but he’s got tremendous potential, which is a fun word but a scary word for coaches,” Holtmann said.
“D.J. is competitive, hard-nosed, athletic point guard that is someone we identified early on as a major, major priority for us.
“E.J. is a kid who has won two state championships. He values winning. All three of them have really natural ability, and at the same time I recognize that all three of them are going to have their share of struggles. There is no question about it. None of them were McDonald’s All-Americans but they certainly would have gotten my vote.
6. And Holtmann is looking forward to C.J. Walker becoming eligible.
A junior from Indianapolis, Walker sat out this season after transferring from Florida State.
He should give Holtmann another option as a ball-handler next season.
“He’s a bulldog. He’s tough, he’s competitive,” Holtmann said. "He’s got natural intangible leadership ability, and he’s also a guy that is certainly a point guard but can play two point guards together as well. He’s gonna be a really solid addition.”