After Ohio State’s loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament semifinal, head coach Chris Holtmann was confident that his team’s body of work was representative of an NCAA Tournament team. He felt the same the day after, telling Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith he felt the Buckeyes were locked in as an 11 seed, maybe even a 10.
Then Sunday rolled around.
“As each hour passed today and I studied the numbers, I studied myself into absolute paranoia,” Holtmann said. “I just had to stop. Thank God we had practice.”
For the first time in his coaching career, Holtmann experienced what leading a bubble team was really like. And on Sunday, sequestered in a room together as a team, experiencing the pressure of the unknown as a group, the unknown became known.
Ohio State was an NCAA Tournament team.
“All season long, we have been leaning on each other just throughout the struggles,” senior guard C.J. Jackson said. “Obviously this year has had its ups and downs and just to see our name pop up there is a bit of a sigh of relief.”
For redshirt senior guard Keyshawn Woods, Ohio State’s name popping up as an 11 seed set to play Iowa State in Tulsa, Oklahoma was validation that he made the right decision to join Holtmann for his final season.
This was what came to mind for the second-year head coach when Ohio State’s future became secure, watching Woods achieve what he has wanted for his collegiate career.
“Keyshawn, the reason he came here was to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Holtmann said. “It wasn’t me. He basically came here and said, ‘Hey, I’m putting my faith in you that I can get there.’”
Woods echoed that sentiment, saying the NCAA Tournament was always on his mind when selecting a school to spend his last season.
“It’s the whole reason why I chose to become a Buckeye,” Woods said. “The belief I had in the guys, C.J., coach Holtmann, the staff, it’s a great feeling, especially to see our name pop up there.”
But Holtmann said, at the beginning of the season, what Woods strived for was no guarantee. He said the Buckeyes had to establish a new identity from the very start of the season.
Even with that, playing well, finding the right players to mold into his scheme and game plan, Holtmann said a Tournament bid was not exactly expected.
“I thought we would have to play well. I did,” Holtmann said. “I thought it was if we played well, I thought it would be very close.”
Now that Ohio State has made the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row — Holtmann’s fifth-straight season dating back to his head coaching tenure at Butler — the approach is not one of appreciating the bid.
Simply put, the Buckeyes want to show up.
“I don’t think that was just our goal: just to make the Tournament. We are not here just to play one game in the Tournament,” Jackson said. “We are here to actually win some games and make a run. Not winning anymore games up to this point is not our approach and not what we are thinking.”
Ohio State will begin that run against Iowa State, a team that had just won the Big 12 Championship Saturday against Kansas and had defeated six ranked opponents this season. Holtmann thought the Cyclones might be the No. 1 team of all the six seeds, saying they could have easily been a five seed.
No matter Ohio State’s performance against the Cyclones in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Jackson will end his season in the big dance, in March Madness: where he wanted it to end.
And as for the future, Jackson said that is not unknown.
“I just think that that shows that Ohio State is back and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down anytime soon.”