Chris Holtmann had to start over.
After inheriting what became the Big Ten Player of the Year in Keita Bates-Diop and forward Jae’Sean Tate from the Thad Matta regime in his first season as the Ohio State head coach, Holtmann had to mold his team into something else entirely in his second season.
Ohio State was not going to be the same team during the 2018-19 season without Tate and Bates-Diop. Holtmann was tasked with rebuilding his roster from the ground up, relying on unproven talent, including a four-member 2018 recruiting class.
But Holtmann had the same goal for his team in his second season as the first: getting a bid in the NCAA Tournament.
“I thought we would have to play well. I did,” Holtmann said. “I thought it was if we played well, I thought it could be very, very close.”
However, the rebuilding process would have to happen a lot quicker than anticipated. Ohio State would open the season in Cincinnati on Nov. 7, taking on the Bearcats in one of 14 Quadrant 1 games the Buckeyes would play this season, according to the NET rankings.
Ohio State would leave Cincinnati with a 64-56 win in their first regular season matchup since 1921, as well as momentum heading into a season full of unknowns.
That momentum did not remain consistent, and the unknowns were never fully answered, but when Holtmann thought about the season as a whole with his team in the NCAA Tournament as an 11 seed, it was the first game that came to mind.
“It wasn’t like, ‘OK, you are going to play your way into figuring out who you are,’” Holtmann said. “We had to be pretty good on opening night or else you are missing out on an opportunity that could prove valuable, and it obviously proved very valuable.”
Holtmann felt he had to create and define Ohio State’s identity prior to the first game of the season, one that was completely different than the five-seed NCAA Tournament team he had in his first season.
And many aspects of that identity have remained integral as the season continued, heading into the Buckeyes’ first round matchup with Iowa State in the tournament.
Sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson was key offensively against the Bearcats, leading Ohio State with 15 points, making 5-of-9 from the field. It was the first of six games in which Wesson shot over 50 percent from the field, becoming the Buckeyes’ leading scorer and rebounder, and the player many opposing defenses planned around.
But Ohio State’s overall offensive approach did not prove to be based solely on Wesson from the start of the season. Instead, the Buckeyes’ approach was to be better from deep than it was a year ago.
After hitting 3-of-11 from 3 in the first half, Ohio State connected on 5-of-9 in the second, leaving Cincinnati hitting 40 percent of its 3-point attempts.
Despite his 2-of-7 start to the season, senior guard C.J. Jackson has continued that trajectory, hitting 38.2 percent of his shots from 3 on a team-high 152 attempts.
Freshman guard Luther Muhammad, making his first collegiate start, also proved to be much more aggressive than he was throughout the regular season. He made 4-of-10 from the field, one of six games this season in which he had double-digit shot attempts, for 11 points, one of 12 double-digit scoring games.
But it was not until the postgame that storylines began to be established for Ohio State.
Holtmann called the win against the Bearcats a good test of resiliency for his team on the road, saying he was interested to see if that toughness would remain throughout the season. Ohio State ended the season winning five of 12 true road games, including only 2-of-7 road games against conference opponents.
With the new faces on the roster, Holtmann was not ready to begin making sweeping statements on the quality of his team after one win, instead focusing on what was immediately next: tomorrow’s practice.
A sweeping statement would prove to be useless to describe Ohio State. After winning 12 of their first 13 games of the season, the Buckeyes lost five of their next six games, ending the season with an 8-12 record in Big Ten play.
But Holtmann did get an idea of what his players could be, from Muhammad’s fiery personality — earning a technical foul in his first game — to the leadership of Jackson and redshirt senior guard Keyshawn Woods.
Holtmann said Sunday he has seen many members of his roster, including players who stepped up in the win against Cincinnati, perform in their new roles, giving them a chance at enough success for postseason play.
But an identity was never truly established.
“We have never coached a team with this number of new faces, and you are trying to figure out with each passing day who we are and who we are becoming,” Holtmann said. “That’s been the challenge.”
And as the season continued, other storylines developed: foul trouble, Kaleb Wesson’s suspension, the freshman highs and lows, including Muhammad’s late-season struggles, and injuries to Jackson and sophomore forward Kyle Young.
But to Jackson, Ohio State, through its ups and downs, achieved its preseason goal, the same goal the team had with Bates-Diop and Tate.
“We did what we had to do throughout the season to put ourselves in position to make the NCAA Tournament,” Jackson said. “So at the end of the day, especially with the young team, that’s all you can ask for.”
Even without a true identity, without knowing who would be the main offensive leader or the leader in the locker room, Ohio State still found a way to beat Cincinnati, a team that will go into the tournament as a seven seed.
“We have had our struggles. We have, there’s no doubting that, and we all take responsibility for that,” Holtmann said. “But we have also won some games, and we won some important games certainly beginning with our very first one.”