Chris Holtmann’s first year in Columbus wasn’t going to be measured with a return to the top of the Big Ten, his ability to beat the conference blue-bloods like Michigan State Sunday or a return to the NCAA Tournament.
Even if Ohio State was having a season that exceeded preseason expectation, Holtmann’s first campaign was meant to be a baseline for his tenure.
It might be more than that after all.
The Buckeyes (13-4, 4-0 Big Ten) downed the No. 1 Michigan State Spartans (15-2, 3-1 Big Ten) Sunday at the Schottenstein Center 80-64, remaining undefeated in conference play and delivering Holtmann his first signature victory with the program that could send Ohio State into the top 25.
Redshirt junior forward Keita Bates-Diop led all scorers with 32 points and cemented his candidacy for Big Ten Player of the Year, while the Buckeyes led by as much as 25 points in the second half against a championship contender.
Ohio State trailed 27-25 with 4:10 remaining in the first half and ended it on a 16-2 run, highlighted by a buzzer-beating 3-pointer off the glass from redshirt senior guard Andrew Dakich to take a 41-29 lead into the locker room.
After that, it was never really close.
“That’s what we came here for, is to be one of those teams that are always looked at as the top teams in the country,” Bates-Diop said Sunday. “We had a down couple years obviously, but this is the start of what we — inside this locker room, inside this place — that we wanted to get to by the end of this season and this was the start of it.”
Holtmann began his press conference saying, “Whoa! That was quite the afternoon.”
He said even he didn’t expect it.
Holtmann has been on both sidelines of a top-ranked matchup — as the winner and as the loser.
In its two tries before to beat those perennial Final Four contenders — Gonzaga and North Carolina — Ohio State floundered to double-digit losses. This time was different. The top team in the country, a conference rival, was on the Buckeyes’ home floor with 17,599 people packing an arena that often struggles to seat 12,000.
Another double-digit loss would’ve felt like that’s Ohio State’s identity — good enough to win games against similar opponents and worse opponents, but not able to compete with the big boys. That’s the team the fan base has come to expect this season.
But it’s very different now. Holtmann’s team is not like the Ohio State teams of the past two years. It’s a team that just beat the top-ranked team in offensive and defensive field goal efficiency. On Sunday, at least, it showed it can beat the big boys.
“We all knew we could do it, and that’s where it started,” Jae’Sean Tate said. “You can’t go into a team like Michigan State and not believing that it’s possible to win. I think that was the biggest factor of us winning tonight is just the belief that we could do it and we put in the work and that we could play with the top-level teams in the nation.”
It’s not fair to expect this performance — 53-percent shooting and 15 assists to just six turnovers — from Ohio State every time against ranked opponents, but it can be done. That’s something the program has been able to say for some time.
“I’m surprised. Coaches get surprised. I got surprised. I’m surprised,” Holtmann said. “We could go in the tank here the next couple weeks. We certainly don’t want this moment to define us. And we don’t want it to be the pinnacle of the season, as good as it is. And that’s the challenge for us moving forward.”
At this point, the upstart Buckeyes have to be taken seriously after dispatching the No. 1 team in the country. At this point, it would be a major disappointment if they did not make the NCAA Tournament.
In his first season, Holtmann has continuously declined to state any general goals for the team, outside of day-to-day improvement. He declined again Sunday.
When asked if the program was back to national relevance, Tate was hesitant to answer, while Bates-Diop whispered to him, “Say it,” before both settled on saying, “We’re on the right track.”
Holtmann deflected the question too saying, “I don’t know if that would be the headline at my house.”
However, it’s impossible to deny what is happening in Columbus after the latest result.
It will take time for Holtmann to achieve what he was brought to Ohio State to do — return the program to the top-tier of college basketball.
Sunday was just the first step.