Entering his first season as Ohio State men’s basketball head coach in fall 2017, Chris Holtmann went to Barnes and Noble to pick up a preseason college basketball preview from a local publication. To his surprise, no Ohio State players were featured on the cover.
“To me, that was a statement about how relevant the program was at the time,” Holtmann said.
Now, going into his third season with the Buckeyes, Holtmann and the nation’s No. 9 recruiting class have been top 10 selections in both ESPN and Sports Illustrated’s “Way-Too-Early” Top 25 rankings for next year.
“I think we’re ahead of schedule,” Holtmann said. “I wasn’t sure, this quickly, we would be in a position to where we would have guys that have had early tournament success. Both getting there and competing.”
Finishing 20-15 overall and just 8-12 in the Big Ten, Ohio State squeaked into the NCAA Tournament as an 11-seed, but still managed a victory over No. 6 Iowa State in the Round of 64.
That upset was an impressive feat for a team without any All-Big Ten performers. To get there, it survived a five-game losing streak and a three-game suspension for sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson.
Still, Ohio State will be without a couple key pieces come next season.
Senior guard C.J. Jackson was the team’s second-leading scorer at 12 points per game and senior guard Keyshawn Woods nearly doubled his average of 8 points per game in four postseason games for the Buckeyes this year.
Taking their place, however, are three top-50, four-star recruits in DJ Carton, Alonzo Gaffney and E.J. Liddell.
The highest rated of the bunch is Carton, an athletic point guard hailing from Bettendorf, Iowa, who Holtmann said is “hard-nosed.”
Gaffney, a forward standing at 6-foot-9, adds height to a team that sorely missed it in stretches this past season with no player on the team being taller than 6-foot-9 in 2018-19.
Holtmann said Liddell brings versatility and a winning pedigree to the Buckeyes, having won two state championships in Illinois.
The expectation is that these three will play heavy minutes right away, which is a prospect that Holtmann said is exciting.
“What you really hope is the youth we played this year and the youth that we’ll play this coming season will provide benefits for us here moving forward,” Holtmann said.
One young player that Holtmann said made significant strides this year was Wesson, who led the team in points at 14.6 and rebounds with 6.9.
Wesson entered his name in the NBA Draft last Wednesday, but the current rules allow players to retain college eligibility if they go undrafted.
Without Wesson this past season, Ohio State was a shell of itself, losing all three games and nearly its chance at an NCAA Tournament berth during his suspension, including a 35-point demolition by Purdue.
Wesson is expected to return for his junior season, and Holtmann said the team needs a backup for down low. That need became even greater with freshman forward Jaedon LeDee’s intention to transfer out of the program.
Holtmann got his wish Sunday, as 7-foot center Ibrahima Diallo out of Senegal committed to Ohio State.
The four new commits give Ohio State its best recruiting class since 2015, but Holtmann and the Buckeye coaching staff will spend the next several months trying to duplicate that success with the class of 2020.
“It’s always a challenge when you have a good recruiting class, in some cases a really good recruiting class, and then back that up with another really good recruiting class,” Holtmann said. “That’s what we need to do. That is absolutely what we need to do.”
Ohio State will be doing so without assistant coach Mike Schrage, who took the head coaching job at Elon on April 5. Schrage coached for Holtmann in his last year at Butler before following him at Ohio State for the past two seasons.
Holtmann said special assistant Mike Netti and director of recruiting and player development Scoonie Penn are among his top candidates to fill the open position for next season.
For the past two seasons, Holtmann and the Buckeyes have overachieved.
With the early hype already rolling in for next season’s team, however, Holtmann knows the bar will not be set as low.
“I didn’t get into coaching at the highest level of college basketball to be fearful of expectations,” Holtmann said.