Ohio State introduced Chris Holtmann as its new men’s basketball coach Monday, the last domino to fall in the hiring process. As the former Butler coach enters the early stages of his efforts to revitalize the Buckeyes, The Lantern spoke with Joe Boozell, the lead college basketball writer for Turner Sports’ NCAA.com, to break down the hiring and talk about what Ohio State fans can expect on the court next season.
Boozell also graduated from Butler, so he has watched the team at length. In fact, his senior year was Holtmann’s first as head coach, and he offered a personal anecdote about Holtmann.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
The Lantern: When you heard that Ohio State fired Thad Matta, did you think of Holtmann right away as a potential target?
Joe Boozell: Yeah, definitely. I had an idea of jobs that he might leave for, and I knew Ohio State was one of them. When Indiana opened, about a month beforehand, I figured he might be a candidate but I also thought they might shoot a bit higher. They got Archie Miller, who I think is similar to Holtmann, but he’s just done what he’s done for a longer period of time than Holtmann has. So, yeah, I wasn’t surprised, and frankly, I was a little worried (he might leave Butler) when Ohio State opened up.
TL: What do you remember about Holtmann’s early career?
JB: There was the gap year between (current Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens) and Holtmann with Brandon Miller, and that was the worst year Butler has had in a long time. I think they won like four Big East games. It was also their first year in the Big East. Then Miller had to leave because of health concerns, and Holtmann was hired out of necessity. He wasn’t anyone’s choice to take over. No one had high hopes for his first season after they won four Big East games the year before, no one was projecting them to make the tournament. They got Roosevelt Jones back, who was their best player who redshirted the year before because of injury, and then they just took off. I think they got a No. 6 seed in the tournament that year.
TL: What qualities about Holtmann as a person stand out?
JB: To me, he always struck me as Brad Stevens-lite, and I mean that to be a compliment. He’s just a super nice guy. I have a fun anecdote. Butler has a Starbucks on campus. It’s a small campus, and that’s like the only restaurant there. Everybody was in line. It was during finals week, and Holtmann was there and he decided to buy every student their Starbucks that day. That’s just the kind of guy he was. That speaks to his character.
Also, Butler has had a lot of tragedy in the Butler basketball family. There was the Andrew Smith death; he was on those Final Four teams. A former staffer’s infant son died. And Holtmann, he’s not really an insider in the fact that he didn’t play for Butler and he was new to the school, but everyone spoke so highly of how he handled those situations. He was there for all the families and for all the people who needed to grieve. You couldn’t find a person who said a negative thing about him.
TL: What qualities as a coach stand out?
JB: He’s a great X’s and O’s coach. He might wow you with recruiting at Ohio State, but at Butler, he recruited three- and four-star guys that usually outperformed their star ranking. And I think my biggest thing about Holtmann, the best thing, is that he doesn’t really have one tangible weakness. He is just very competent in every area. I don’t remember a game as an alumni walking away after a loss thinking they lost this game because of Holtmann. It sounds simple, but I think that’s something really good to have as a coach.
He’s definitely willing to embrace the small-ball movement. He loves to have a stretch power forward. He loves to have at least four shooters on the floor. I think he’s one of the best after-the-timeout coaches. When I referred to him as Stevens-lite earlier, whenever Butler called a timeout in the second half of a close game, I always felt good about what was going to come out of that possession.
He’ll fit his style to his personnel, and while it may not be very good that first year, I can’t say enough good things about him.
One thing that stands out is the guys he recruits, like Kelan Martin, Kamar Baldwin. They’re probably Butler’s two best players. They were unheralded three-star guys who way, way outperformed their rankings, and I think as an Ohio State fan or follower, you can probably expect the same thing, and that’s huge.
I don’t know if I called this a weakness, but it’s probably biggest weakness in the sense that he only coached at Butler for three years — nobody he coached went onto the NBA. Could that be a drawback in recruiting? Yes, but I think he’s going to recruit better at Ohio State than he did at Butler, and he won quite a bit at Butler. It’s hard to say if he’s going to get the Greg Oden, Evan Turner classes. We just don’t know yet. There’s not enough of a sample size, but I think he’s also proven that he can win without those guys against high competition. I’m not saying he can’t get those guys, but he just hasn’t proven it. I guess we’ll learn.
TL: Considering Ohio State’s current roster construction, do you think Holtmann will have to make changes to his preferred schemes?
JB: Here’s what I would expect, with his three Butler teams, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the less talented the team, the slower they played. I think that’s very intentional, and I would expect Ohio State to play slowly next year. I wouldn’t expect that once he gets players he likes. I think he just knows that the slower the pace, that gives the least talented team the chance to win. And that let’s his set-plays and whatnot take over. I think he can fit to any style, but if there really is no identity, expect him to try to grind it out his first year.
They’re going to take a lot of 3s. They’re going to take a lot of layups. They’re not going to take a lot of midrange shots. They’re going to play hard-nosed defense, primarily man-to-man. He’ll get a little daring with zone, but I guess now that I think about it, I didn’t really like when he played zone. I feel like it never really worked. I would say he’s about 85 percent man, 15 percent 2-3 zone.
I think ideally he’d like a free-flowing, somewhat faster paced style. But in that first year, which was sort of the case with Butler, he deliberately slowed the game down and hoped to win it in a tight battle.
One thing I’d add, and this isn’t really like his playing style, more his recruiting style, but he definitely loves to have a playmaking four to initiate the offense. Not Draymond Green, but someone in that ilk. I don’t want to compare (6-foot-7) Andrew Chrabascz to Draymond Green, but he sort of played that role. He led Butler in assists last year. He just likes to have that power forward be someone who can shoot, pass, run the offense if needed. It wouldn’t surprise me if that was one of his first big recruiting snags. You know, 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8 combo forward, like Kyle Young, which is what he’s recruited to be. So if it’s not Kyle Young as a transfer, I think he’s going to get that guy in Year One and he’ll be a really good player.
TL: What do you think would be reasonable expectations for Ohio State fans next year?
JB: I think, even though last season was relatively disappointing for Ohio State, they still won what like 19 games?
TL: I think they won like 17 or 18. First time under Matta they didn’t win at least 20 games. (Editor’s note: Ohio State finished with a 17-15 record).
JB:OK, well I think that’s actually kind of reasonable given what they lost and what they didn’t add. I mean, it could change if they take some Butler guys, but given what they won’t be adding — and I know that contributed to Matta leaving. They didn’t get any grad transfers of note. I think Holtmann can get you to the NIT, and that doesn’t sound sexy, but given everything that happened that would actually be a pretty good outcome.
TL: Given the competitiveness in the Big Ten and other slumping programs like Indiana and Illinois adding new coaches, what do you think a reasonable long-term forecast is?
JB: I think a reasonable trajectory would be as I said, Year One, NIT, hopefully a guy pops that you didn’t expect, maybe two guys. Year Two, I think definitely make the (NCAA) Tournament with a good class. Holtmann has also shown willingness to add grad transfers, which Butler hadn’t really done. He got some really good guys in Avery Woodson and Kethan Savage last year. I think a No. 7 or No. 8 seed by Year Two is totally doable. By Year Three, I could see them atop the Big Ten. I don’t see why not.
Michigan State, Indiana, Michigan, those are all really good programs but they’re not Duke or Kentucky or Kansas. So if everything goes right, I think they could absolutely win the Big Ten by Year Three. That’s a lot of speculation but I think that’s a totally realistic trajectory, and I think you should be excited about that if you’re an Ohio State fan.