The Ohio State men’s basketball team will face an uphill battle to ascend back to the lofty level it reached last season.
Head coach Chris Holtmann is more than aware of that.
Replacing three starters, including 2018 Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate, will be a challenge for a team that returns only three impact upperclassmen.
Holtmann said Tuesday that filling the lost production starts with the 2017 and 2018 recruiting classes stepping up into key roles. But with at least one open scholarship, Holtmann said he expects to add at least one or two graduate transfers before the season begins.
Former walk-on guard Joey Lane is currently on scholarship, but Holtmann said there is an understanding between the team and the energetic bench leader that he might need to lose the scholarship while remaining on the team so the roster can add another veteran player.
Last season, Ohio State picked up a late graduate transfer when former Michigan guard Andrew Dakich joined the roster as the backup guard. Though never an impact player in maize and blue, Dakich quickly took up an important role in scarlet and gray.
He went from averaging less than 5.5 minutes per game in his first three collegiate seasons to averaging 19 minutes per game in the 2017-18 season and providing the Buckeyes with much-needed depth at point guard.
That came at a time when the Buckeyes desperately needed guard depth. With players like Micah Potter, Kaleb Wesson, Andre Wesson, Tate and Bates-Diop, there was no lack of talent at forward.
Even with Tate and Bates-Diop no longer returning, Holtmann indicated the biggest depth concern again comes at guard. Ohio State will bring in four-star Luther Muhammad and three-star Duane Washington, while it returns senior C.J. Jackson and sophomore Musa Jallow.
But with Kam Williams leaving, the Buckeyes no longer have a clear starter at shooting guard. Nor do they have anyone else who can run the point when Jackson needs a break.
Holtmann said the team is currently looking at bringing in someone who can play point guard, thus allowing it to use a three-guard lineup like it did last year, albeit infrequently.
“We’ll definitely play a three-guard lineup, probably in some ways, more than we did this year,” Holtmann said.
It is not as simple though as just waiting for a player to decide to pick Ohio State. Holtmann said that April is a busy month for coaches, and that recruiting graduate transfers is an even more demanding process than high-school recruits.
The timetable for recruiting high-school players is often extended. A coach can go visit a player and spend several years trying to get to know the player better and convince that player to join the school.
Holtmann said, typically, as soon as the coaching staff is informed a player has been granted his release from his previous school, the race is on to recruit that player.
“You’re at 10 right away on a scale of one to 10,” Holtmann said. “We’ve got a couple visits here in the next week and a half that we’re excited about that probably you guys will all hear about and then we have to continue to line up a couple.”
One thing that Holtmann now has to back up his pitch to prospective Buckeyes is the fact he just brought the team to the NCAA Tournament in his first year as head coach. Often many of the transfers come from schools that failed to reach the tournament and the player leaving is just looking at a chance to make it to the Big Dance.
“That’s not always the No. 1 criteria, but for guys that haven’t played in the tournament, it’s usually a pretty high criteria,” Holtmann said.
Holtmann now has the track record to show he can take some of those graduate transfers to the tournament where they have always wanted to go. He just now needs their help getting there again.
“Obviously in some of these cases, they could be a really important factor in whether or not we can get back to that point along with the most important factor, which would be our returning guys.”