When members of Ohio State’s men’s basketball teams are introduced this season, a bright flame shoots up from on top of the hoop to signal the entrance of the player.
That flame did not go off Monday night, and the Buckeyes seemingly followed suit.
There was no fire in the Buckeyes early on. No energy. Ohio State came out slow to start the game, making just two field goals over the first seven and a half minutes of the game. The team finished the first half with just 24 points, it’s lowest single-half total since its 86-59 loss to Gonzaga.
It had no business winning the game against Nebraska. It did anyway.
The Ohio State team last season, which finished with a 17-15 record, would have watched Nebraska junior guard James Palmer Jr. knock down back-to-back 3-pointers to tie and subsequently give his team the lead with seven minutes left in the game and crumbled away.
But the Ohio State team this season — which already has an 18-5 record and perfect 9-0 Big Ten record — fought back, seemingly getting stronger as the stakes got higher and managed to salvage the game for a 64-59 win.
“Were there like four times they were dead in the water, jumping out of bounds to save a ball and somehow, like Dakich is standing in the corner wide-open, I’m like, ‘How the heck did he get that?’” Nebraska head coach Tim Miles said.
The win for Ohio State is just the latest in a season full of unexpected wins. The Buckeyes were not expected to do much of anything before the season began. This looked like a rebuilding year. But now the No. 13 team in the nation, Ohio State is in anything but a rebuilding year.
Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said after the game he never knows how to answer questions about what a win means for a team. This win alone did not mean much. This win in the context of the rest of the season is just a sign of how fast a team has come together.
“Listen, I don’t want to take this for granted. I’ve never been a part of anything like this. And I don’t know that I ever will again,” Holtmann said. “You don’t start 9-0 in conference play. So I don’t want to take that for granted. It’s been an amazing run and just hopefully we can continue it.”
Hearing a coach say that a team is “buying into” the message a news coaching staff brings in its first season sounds like coach-speak at the beginning of the season when the team is beating up on clearly inferior opponents.
But now this deep into the season, it no longer sounds like coach-speak. There is something about this team and these players that can seemingly only be attributed to “buying into” the coaching staff.
“It didn’t happen overnight,” senior forward Jae’Sean Tate said. “In my opinion, I’ve never been on a team where so many people buy in. Like there’s no hidden agendas in our locker room. None. You don’t see that a lot . . . Everybody’s buying in. Everybody’s playing with with heart, effort and you know we’re not afraid to call each other out on it.”
This level of commitment is not foreign to a team hiring Holtmann for the first time. Holtmann was an assistant coach under Brandon Miller at Butler when the Bulldogs endured a major down-year. The season prior under now-Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, the team went 27-9 and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. But Miller’s team found less success, struggling to a 14-17 season. The following offseason, Miller left due to medical issues, leaving Holtmann as the head coach.
That team turned around immediately, finishing 23-11 and again reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Holtmann said that losing season transformed the players into a “hungry group,” motivated to again find success. When he joined an Ohio State team that missed the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season, he saw a similarly hungry group.
“I think some of what happened last year has allowed this group to be even hungrier, so I think we as a coaching staff have probably benefited from that to some degree,” Holtmann said. “I think my time at Butler, it happened pretty quickly. But I had been there a year as an assistant, so it was easier. But I did not expect this group to be as connected to us so quickly.”
Everyone who doubted the Buckeyes at the beginning of the season has looked for answers to why this team managed to turn a dismal 2016-17 campaign into one of the best teams in the country. Is it the fact redshirt junior forward Keita Bates-Diop is averaging nearly 20 points per game? Or perhaps it has more to do with emergence of junior guard C.J. Jackson?
Both those are major factors in the turnaround, but the mentality and morale around this team is just different than it was last year. It isn’t a program that is defeated at halftime of some games. It is a team that fights till the end of every game with maximum effort.
That fire won’t always be there at the start of every game. But with the way Ohio State has played to this point in the year, that flame can seemingly always be counted on in the end.