In head coach Chris Holtmann’s first season in Columbus, no one, not even Holtmann himself, were expecting much from the Buckeyes. The Ohio State Buckeyes had missed two straight trips to the NCAA Tournament. In 2016-17, they weren’t even invited to the NIT. The scarlet and gray were expected to struggle on the hardwood, while their new coaching staff got acclimated. Obviously, Holtmann and Ohio State fans wanted them to at least be competitive, but the Buckeyes were projected by many to be one of the worst teams in the Big Ten.
Holtmann’s Buckeyes have not only tremendously exceeded expectations, but they have done so in incredible fashion as well, seemingly shocking the college basketball world as the season continues to roll on. If their stunning upset over then No. 1-ranked Michigan State in the first week of 2018 wasn’t enough, Ohio State went to West Lafayette and took down then No. 3-ranked Purdue Wednesday night. Not only was the win over the Boilermakers an upset in one of the toughest venues to steal a win in college basketball, but it also proved just how different this year’s team is than in recent memory, all because of Holtmann and company.
At 22-5 (13-1), the Buckeyes hold a one-game lead over both Purdue and Michigan State in the Big Ten standings with just four games to go in the regular season. Given that they won both head-to-head matchups, the scarlet and gray virtually have a two-game lead in the conference with less than two weeks left. Yes, the team projected by Big Ten media members to finish 11th (out of 14) in the conference, Ohio State is not only a top-10 team, but in the driver’s seat to win the Big Ten regular season title as well. For that, Holtmann is not only the favorite to win Big Ten Coach of the Year, but National Coach of the Year as well.
There are a number of other coaches who deserve a shot, ((Tennessee’s Rick Barnes, Aurburn’s Bruce Pearl, Purdue’s Matt Painter, Virginia’s Tony Bennett, and Villanova’s Jay Wright, among others, but none of those coaches were put in the situation Holtmann was. He was hired in late June and started the season with just eight scholarship players. Part of his success is due to players such as Keita Bates-Diop, but Holtmann has put his team in the best position to win in every game, no matter who the opponent. He has done an incredible job with what he was given in his first season in Columbus.
While the new head coach has given former head coach Thad Matta plenty of credit almost every postgame interview he does, Holtmann has used the leadership that Matta instilled in his players to get the best out of what he currently has. Ohio State may not always be the most talented team on the court, the deepest team on the court, or even the favorite, but the Buckeyes will outplay, outhustle, and outwork their opponent almost every game. Why is that, you ask? It’s what the new coaching staff has forced them to be. This year’s squad has a different mindset than in year’s past. In the last couple years, if Ohio State went down early or even trailed by double digits, they would essentially give up much of the time, with no chance of taking the lead again or winning the game. If the upset win at Purdue proved anything, it’s that Holtmann’s Buckeyes never give up, no matter the situation, atmosphere, or what the odds are.
Over the last couple seasons, if the Buckeyes trailed by double digits like they did at Purdue, previous teams would have given up, essentially calling it quits even if there was still plenty of time left in the game. Even if they didn’t give up, Buckeye Nation seemed to. To many Ohio State fans, it felt as though the hole was just too big to dig out of. This year’s version of the Buckeyes doesn’t do that. While the team’s confidence is key given their amount of success so far this season, much of the difference in the mindsets and being able to always have hope that they can win the game is in due part to what Holtmann and the new coaching staff has brought to Columbus.
Many Buckeyes fans haven’t had anything to look forward to outside of football season the last few seasons. In just eight months, Holtmann has made Ohio State basketball fun again, and he only has himself to thank. Luckily, Buckeye Nation has taken notice. For the first time in almost four years, the Schott was sold out for the Buckeyes win over Iowa last Saturday.
He has turned a thin roster into one of the best teams in the country. He doesn’t (and didn’t) make excuses for the lack of depth or anything else, he has just done the best he can with what he was given. Even if it’s just mid-January through March (and April), Holtmann has turned Ohio State into a basketball school. The basketball Buckeyes are fun again, and for that, Holtmann deserves to be the National Coach of the Years in his first season in Columbus.