Chris Holtmann had his first humbling experience as Ohio State men’s basketball head coach last Sunday.
In a closed-door scrimmage against Xavier, Holtmann knew his team was going to be challenged physically and mentally. After examining the evidence, Holtmann’s verdict was his team’s resolve from one play to the next was not at the level he expected when things broke down on either end of the floor.
Ohio State will have its next chance to take a step in the right direction in its exhibition game against Wooster Sunday at the Schottenstein Center before the regular season opens Friday.
The team’s ability to put a negative play behind it was an obvious detriment to a season full of errors last year. A coaching staff and a new core of players can influence a change of culture. But for a team that is projected to finish in the bottom half of the league, overcoming adversity could play as big a factor as any in Holtmann’s inaugural season.
“We obviously experienced some adversity in the [Xavier] game, and that’s going to be something you hear me say over and over, how are we going to respond to adversity in the midst of a game and the midst of a season?” Holtmann said Friday. “That’s an unanswered question about us as a group.”
Often, coaches who have been in the conference a while know a first-year coach’s inherited program better than the new coach. During Big Ten Media Day in New York City last month, Holtmann said some Big Ten coaches unprovokingly mentioned Ohio State’s issues late in games last year, saying the Buckeyes were a soft team down the stretch.
Holtmann took that critique as one that was comparing last year’s team to the teams that competed for a conference championship year after year under the tutelage of former Ohio State coach Thad Matta, not one that was overly critical of his current roster.
Regardless, it’s an area Holtmann is now responsible for fixing, and that maintenance starts in practice. Holtmann said he has implemented some of the most difficult drills he knows in practice, coupled with tough officiating to test the resilience of the team.
“It has came up, as a matter of fact, where we didn’t feel like we responded as well as we needed to to some adversity in practice, and it’s my job to communicate how our response needs to be better ’cause it wasn’t what it needed to be with one team in particular,” Holtmann said. “We’ve got a coachable group so they heard that.”
But it’s not like this issue was a secret. It was a glaring weakness, and one Matta was candid about throughout last season. He saw it and the leaders on Holtmann’s inherited team saw it.
“I definitely see improvement and we’re not there yet,” said senior forward Jae’Sean Tate. “With such a quick turnaround with all that’s happened, it’s not going to happen overnight. But I think that we have all the pieces — all the guys — that want to handle that adversity.”
Holtmann said he will treat Sunday’s exhibition game against Wooster as another practice, which means he’ll continue to be critical of his players’ response to adversity. For his sake, he’s hoping the simulated adversity during the week leads to an innate response to it early in the season. Without matching the league’s top teams in talent will require the Buckeyes to excel in other areas that they weren’t skilled in a season ago.
“Coach Holt … he’s going to call you out on it as soon as he sees it,” Tate said. “Personally, a couple of days ago I didn’t have a practice where I didn’t handle it adversity as best as I could. And he came to me in front of the team as soon as practice was over and talked to me about that. And I’m thankful for that. He’s making me a better a leader and he’s making me a better all-around player.”