Chris Holtmann didn’t have any control over his schedule for his first season coaching Ohio State. He was going to be coaching in the Phil Knight Invitational whether he was in Columbus or still coaching Butler. But unlike at Butler, he has to endure the possibility of six straight games against high-major opponents.
In 12 days.
Now that it’s here, Holtmann is staring down the greatest test he will have not just in his first year with the Buckeyes, but also in his entire coaching career to this point.
“It’s completely unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “It’s something we’re going to have to be mindful about with rest and sleep, and it will be interesting to see, too, the teams that come out of Portland and how they respond to this stretch once they come back.”
The Buckeyes (4-0) have played well to this point and have played with more energy and consistency than they showed at any point last season. But that road ahead gets much tougher.
On the schedule, Ohio State has No. 17 Gonzaga, Stanford or No. 7 Florida, Clemson, Wisconsin and Michigan. Holtmann’s squad also has a third game in Portland, Oregon, at the PK80 — the tournament celebrating Nike founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday — against either Duke, Portland State, Texas or Butler.
Holtmann has made it clear he isn’t putting any goals or expectations on this season. He said it again Tuesday before his team departs for the West Coast.
“For us the end game right now for us is get better today,” Holtmann said. “That’s really the end game. We don’t have another end game other than get better today.”
That might be coach-speak, but let’s consider the obvious.
He arrived in June after an out-of-the-blue firing of former coach Thad Matta. He arrived with no recruits remaining in the 2018 recruiting class, so he immediately had to hit the trail. He didn’t have time to really get to know his players until official practice began in September.
So given the circumstances, all Holtmann has been able to do is focus one day at a time.
That being said, he’s still a coach, and a coach demands a certain level of play from his players. That bar can be set and raised with a strong showing in these next six days.
“It’s a good opportunity,” senior forward Jae’Sean Tate said. “To compete against multiple teams in a span of 48 hours, it’s great, it’s exciting. We’re looking forward to it.”
Just four games into the season, it might be a bit rash to call this stretch the greatest challenge he’ll face this year. But consider this: Ohio State will have played nearly a third of its schedule after this stretch, including two conference games with a multitude of opportunities for signature wins on its resume when it comes time to evaluate the Buckeyes in March.
Yes, Holtmann needs to figure out his team’s 3-point shooting woes (28.4 percent), whether any issues that come with the dearth of depth at guard and address any potential injuries that might occur in the future. But in the present, there’s no greater opportunity for an early statement than the next two weeks.
“I think, in a lot of ways, it was a no-brainer decision to be a part of an event like [the PK80] because of what it can reveal about your team in these moments,” Holtmann said.
While most Ohio State fans will tune into coverage of the football game against Michigan this week, there’s no denying that fans badly want their basketball team to be competitive again.
The Buckeyes don’t have to win all six of these upcoming games, but going .500 would turn some heads toward the program Holtmann is trying to resurrect in Columbus.