Ohio State Buckeyes: Holtmann still trying to elevate basketball program through changing environment

If ever there were a sign of the times in college basketball, Chris Holtmann provided one this week when he described Ohio State’s offseason so far as “pretty uneventful.”

That assessment came despite the fact his team has lost one transfer (Musa Jallow), brought in two more and had two players enter their names in the NBA Draft pool.

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There is little doubt Holtmann was sincere, though.

Change has become a constant in the sport, and he and his staff know they have to adapt or find a new line of work.

“As much of you know, the offseason is no longer an offseason for college coaches, in particular college basketball coaches,” Holtmann said, noting the 6-8 weeks after the season ends have become among the busiest as there are an average of five players per Division I program in the transfer portal.

“‘New normal’ has been used a lot in the last year and a half, but it’s the new normal in college basketball. And that’s fine. It’s part of it, but certainly for us it’s been honestly a pretty uneventful last few weeks,” Holtmann said.

Here are four things to know from Holtmann’s hour-long video conference:

1. Joey Brunk is likely the last addition Holtmann will make to the 2021-22 roster.

The Indiana transfer, who was recruited to Butler before that by Holtmann, is expected to add some size to an Ohio State lineup that was lacking it last season.

Exactly how he fits into the rotation remains to be seen, but Holtmann indicated he is looking forward to having a frontcourt with Brunk, Kyle Young, Zed Key and All-Big Ten forward E.J. Liddell — if Liddell removes his name from the NBA Draft pool this summer.

“Time will tell on that,” Holtmann said. “You’re assuming everybody comes back to full health and E.J. goes through this process and feels like it is best for him to return. I’m looking at that right now, but I think there are some unknowns and some things to be figured out.

“I am super excited about Kyle returning. We all know how important he is to us and how much we felt his absence in those last two games, the Big Ten championship game and the NCAA Tournament. I think some of that will figure itself out.

“Zed, we are really excited about the step he can take for us moving forward. I think his offseason along with a couple of our young guards is critical to our team next year as anything.”

Giving Brunk a scholarship means there are no more to give out for the coming season — unless more open up.

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2. Holtmann sounded like he plans on Liddell and Dwayne Washington Jr. being part of his next team.

Ohio State’s two best players last season, Washington and Liddell have both entered their names in the NBA Draft.

They can still return to Ohio State if they do not hire an agent, and the general expectation is they will do that after gathering information about what NBA scouts think of their respective games.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations with both families, regular conversations, and we’ll continue to,” Holtmann said. “They’re both great kids, both great families, so I’m confident that while the decision is not imminent, I don’t think for either guy, I think they’ll make a decision that they feel like is best for them and I’m going to support them along the way.”

Players have until May 30 to enter the draft and until July 19 to withdraw. The draft is July 29, about a month later than usual because the season started late as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic interrupting the previous season.

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3. The coach is excited to see what Jabari Wheeler and Jimmy Sotos can add to his team.

Wheeler is transferring in this year after starting at Penn State for three seasons while Sotos transferred from Bucknell last year but missed the season following shoulder surgery.

Holtmann also called this summer an important developmental one for young guard Meechie Johnson, who skipped his senior year of high school to join the Buckeyes last fall.

“I’m super excited about the step that Meechie can take as a player,” Holtmann said. “I felt like bringing him in when we did was a good decision at the time and remains a good decision. And hopefully next year he’ll provide some benefits from his experience there, but Jamari obviously meets a need for us in terms of his defense, his on-ball presence. His offense has improved, as we know, and, he can be a real pest on the ball, that’s for sure.”

4. Holtmann sounded proud of his first four seasons at Ohio State but far from satisfied.

“Objectively, I would say our first two years we were picked in the bottom half of the Big Ten, and while we had some struggles, we were able to get to the NCAA Tournament and perform well and win a couple games,” Holtmann said. “Year three, I thought we were playing the best maybe we have played and maybe had a chance with the postseason. Both the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA got taken away from us. Who knows what that would have looked like? Perhaps we would have had a chance to perform well.”

Hitting the ground running with a team the finished second in the Big Ten in 2018 established Holtmann’s ability to coach at the highest level, but it also gave license to fans to have high expectations of returning to the Final Four, a place his immediate predecessors Thad Matta and Jim O’Brien both took the Buckeyes.

“I think we have established a level of success and competitiveness,” Holtmann said. “Nationally, we’ve been ranked in the top 25 every year and in the top 15 three of the four years. There is a national relevancy that has been reached. We have not reached in any stretch the peak years of Thad incredible run or Coach O’Brien’s couple of big years there and then dating back to the run in the 60s, they were the ones who got to the final finish line.

“That is our goal and what we are working toward every day. I acknowledge we have work to do to accomplish that, but I could not feel any better about overall the health of our program. But I recognize we have opportunities and steps in front of us.”

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