Thirteen months ago, the Ohio State Buckeyes parted ways with men’s basketball coach Thad Matta. It was a decision that seemed to be followed with plenty more questions than answers. Why fire the best coach in program history? Why wait until June to do so, rather than let go of him immediately following the season? Were Matta’s struggles later in his career due to the high standards he set, his health, the fact that he had a clean program, or something else? Would Matta’s replacement be able to lead the Buckeyes not only to atop the Big Ten but make them national title contenders as well, much like the former coach did during his early years in Columbus?
Well, to say that Chris Holtmann has exceeded expectations in his first year at Ohio State would be quite an understatement. Even though he wasn’t hired by the Buckeyes until June, which is awfully late, especially for recruiting, the new head coach assembled the best recruiting class in the Big Ten in 2017. Although he had some commits already from Matta, Holtmann’s work in just one month in Columbus finished off the class.
Fast forward to the season, one that no one really expected the scarlet and gray to have much success and Holtmann’s squad impressed people around the country even more. In fact, Big Ten media members picked the Buckeyes to finish among the cellar of the conference in 2017-18. To say that Holtmann’s Buckeyes exceeded expectations during his first season would be one heck of an understatement. They not only missed out on the regular season conference title by just one game, but they secured a spot in the NCAA Tournament, made some noise in March, Holtmann was named the (obvious) Big Ten Coach of the Year, and in what was supposed to be a year that the Buckeyes were expected to struggle mightily, Ohio State went from the hunter to the hunted all while exceeding every expectation that was thrown in front of them as well.
Holtmann and company didn’t allow that momentum to come to a sudden stop and instead carried it into the offseason. In early April, they received a commitment from Alonzo Gaffney, Ohio’s top prospect in the 2019 class. It not only carried the momentum but in case anyone questioned the head coach of the Buckeyes, it was yet another reminder that he’s trying to make Ohio State basketball relevant again, much like it was during Matta’s early years leading the Buckeyes.
Gaffney’s commitment also put the rest of the recruits and country on notice. The 2017-18 season wasn’t a fluke and Holtmann will make sure that the Buckeyes are here to stay, not only as one of the top teams in the Big Ten but to eventually be a national title contender as well. Right before Gaffney’s commitment, Ohio State was able to land former Florida State point guard CJ Walker, who will be forced to sit out the 2018-19 season due to transfer rules but will have a major role in the years following. Then, Holtmann was able to get Wake Forest grad transfer, Keyshawn Woods.
While the Buckeyes will all but certainly take a step back this season following their incredible run last year, one thing is clear: Holtmann’s preparing for the future, one that is really, really bright for the Buckeyes.
Whether the commitment from Gaffney or even the transfers helped or not will remain a question, Ohio State’s future success on the hardwood became even more apparent this past weekend, when the Buckeyes were able to land the second-best point guard in the 2019 class when DJ Carton surprisingly committed to the scarlet and gray. Ohio State zeroed in on Carton as their top target from the moment Gaffney committed to the scarlet and gray in early April. The No. 21-ranked prospect in the class, he is the highest-rated recruit Holtmann has ever received a commitment from. Ohio State seemingly went from not being able to recruit the top in-state prospects to nabbing the top prospect in Iowa, who is also one of the best prospects in the country as well.
It sent shockwaves across college basketball, especially because the Buckeyes were able to nab such a talented kid that many believed would eventually commit to Michigan. Holtmann was not only able to lock up the highest-rated commit since D’Angelo Russell, who was the 16th-best recruit in his class, committed to the Buckeyes in 2014. It skyrocketed the Buckeyes up to No. 4 in terms of the 2019 class rankings.
Ohio State may take a step back this upcoming season, especially after such a phenomenal and surprising season in 2017-18, but Holtmann’s Buckeyes are here to stay, and they’ve made that clear. Ohio State didn’t need a year or two to become relevant again, the coaching staff made them relevant (and good) the moment they stepped on campus. The Buckeyes may be considered a football school, but it seems as though Holtmann and crew are doing their best to make sure that the basketball team dominates the Big Ten for the foreseeable future, much like the football team has.
Although the process has gone much faster than many expected, Holtmann has continued the momentum from the season into the offseason, and it has paid major dividends already. Now, Buckeye Nation can hope that even if it’s only for a couple months out of the year, Ohio State may just be able to be considered a basketball school. The Buckeyes are back. They’re not only contenders for the conference title, but national title contenders as well. We can all thank Holtmann and his staff for that.