When Ohio State Athletics Director Gene Smith announced the university’s decision to part ways with former coach Thad Matta, one reason stood out among the rest as to why the change was made.
Matta seemed to have lost his touch in the recruiting game in the state of Ohio.
“Recruiting, as we all know, is the lifeblood of this program,” Smith said during the June 5 press conference. “We weren’t winning the battles in recruiting that I thought we might have a chance to win, as (Matta) did.”
And at that same press conference, Smith made clear the key attribute he needed in the next coach.
“The next person that we attract will have a major focus in Ohio and actually a 150 to 200 mile radius,” Smith said.
So Smith went out and locked up Chris Holtmann, a coach who has given Ohio State fits over the past few seasons by winning recruiting battles in the Buckeye state, the most recent of which was the commitment of 2017 four-star forward prospect Kyle Young, a native of Massillon, Ohio.
And Young is not the first Ohio prospect Holtmann has recruited. The previous season, he nabbed three-star small forward prospect Henry Baddley, an Akron native, and Nathan Fowler, a three-star center from Cincinnati, the year before that.
Those were the three prospects he landed, but Holtmann had pursued many others from Ohio. Westerville South head coach Ed Calo said Holtmann made a late push for now-Ohio State sophomore forward Andre Wesson and freshman forward Kaleb Wesson, both products of Calo’s coaching tenure.
“They really tried to get in on (Andre) late in the process,” Calo said.
Calo said when Holtmann becomes interested in a player, he hones in on the recruit and does everything he can to create mutual interest, even if it comes late in the process like he did with Andre Wesson.
“Coach Holtmann does a really nice job trying to get after some people. He targets people,” Calo said. “Sometimes it doesn’t necessarily work out, and then as a result, you have to get it late into the game and instead it’s a chase and you’re behind the eight-ball. I know he’s going to be a good recruiter, especially having Ohio State on his shirt now.”
This focus on the state of Ohio does not appear to be going away anytime soon, as Holtmann made it a point of emphasis during his introductory press conference on Monday.
“This region … is a tremendous area for talented, smart and tough players. I’ve recruited Ohio for over 20 years, and it has outstanding players and coaches — some of the best in the country,” Holtmann said.
“It will be paramount to our success, there’s no question,” he added. “We’re going to work extremely hard as a staff to close the borders and dominate the state of Ohio in recruiting. It will be an every-day focus for us.”
Closing down the borders will be a tall task for a team consistently as rich in basketball talent as Ohio tends to be. Zach Fleer, an Ohio State graduate and co-founder of 270hoops.com, said that it’s nearly impossible to dominate the state the way Holtmann would probably like to.
“Ohio State’s not going to be able to sign every top player in Ohio every single year,” Fleer said. “You’re going to see guys go to Michigan, Michigan State and elsewhere in the country. But as long as Ohio State gets the majority of the top-three, top-five guys in the state every year, I think they’ll be just fine.”
Fleer said the trick to locking down those top-tier talents is to begin the pursuit of them early.
“Showing that you are serious about them and really not playing around with them and making them wait for a scholarship offer they may have earned as a freshman or a sophomore,” Fleer said.
For Ohio State, it’s likely too late to recruit for the 2017 class. But Westerville North coach Shannon Trusley believes Holtmann’s already-aggressive approach in pursuing players years in advance will pay dividends for the Buckeyes down the road.
“(Holtmann has) already developed relationships with a lot of kids in Ohio, in all classes, just not (2018) class, but the (2019) class,” Trusley said. “I have a kid, (point guard) Jeremiah Keene, who will be a junior this year that Butler’s already developed a relationship with.”
Trusley also added Holtmann has established connections with 2018 recruits four-star small forward Jerome Hunter from Pickerington North, four-star combo-forward Dwayne Cohill from Parma Holy Name in Parma Heights, Ohio, and four-star small forward Pete Nance from Richfield Revere in Richfield, Ohio.
The first step he will need to take in establishing or further building upon relationships with prospects is to turn his attention to the July recruiting period.
For many teams, this period can play a crucial role for teams in the recruiting process. Coaches from teams all over the nation can watch prospective basketball players participate in national AAU tournaments, which draw teams and players from every region of the country. For some coaches, it’s the first time seeing these prospects since April.
“For Holtmann, it’s going to be huge to get on the recruiting scene, especially in the 2018 class because there’s five guys in the state that are regarded among the top 100 players in the (country),” Fleer said.
Fleer added it would also be important for Holtmann to reach out to four-star shooting guard recruit and Ohio State’s lone 2018 commit Dane Goodwin from Upper Arlington to ensure that that commitment remains solid, considering the fact Goodwin was recruited by Matta and has less familiarity with Holtmann. The two sides reportedly met on Monday.
And with this time proving so vital to the new Buckeye coach, Holtmann said Monday he has remained in contact with prospects he was recruiting at Butler to try and swing them over to the Scarlet and Gray.
“As soon as I was signed on and compliant eligible to make calls within the rules, that first hour we started making calls and contacting,” Holtmann said. “I have some previous relationships with some young men, but our focus this past weekend has been Ohio … But we’ve hit the ground running and that’s going to continue to happen.”