Not even three weeks following its second-round NCAA tournament loss, a hype train began to build around the 2019-20 Ohio State men’s basketball team.
A train, the likes of which the program hadn’t seen in several years, that head coach Chris Holtmann called “ahead of schedule.”
Now less than three weeks away from the start of the new season, Holtmann appears to be pumping the breaks.
“I would say this group is not as far along as last year’s group was in certain areas,” Holtmann said.
Inheriting a group in 2017 that finished No. 10 in the Big Ten a season prior, Holtmann’s first Ohio State team finished second in the conference and won a game in the NCAA tournament as a No. 5 seed.
The next year, without his two best players –– forwards Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’sean Tate –– Holtmann and the Buckeyes’ first-round upset win in the tournament was even more surprising.
Ahead of this season, though, the team is invigorated with a nationally elite recruiting class, one that in April was No. 9 in the country, helping earn the Buckeyes a spot in both ESPN and Sports Illustrated’s “Way-Too-Early” Top 25 rankings.
The 2019 class, which has since slid to No. 14 in the nation, is still rated the top group in the Big Ten. With three four-star, top 50 national recruits, some thought the young talent may be the team’s driving force off the bat.
After the 15th preseason practice Wednesday, however, Holtmann didn’t sound convinced.
“That is the challenge for everybody who is young, who is learning –– that this is harder maybe than what they anticipated it being,” he said.
Freshman guard DJ Carton, the No. 34 recruit in the country, is the highest-rated prospect in the class, but Holtmann said he has struggled with accepting that he won’t always be the best player on the floor.
While freshman forward Alonzo Gaffney has displayed what junior forward Kyle Young called “ridiculous” athleticism thus far, Holtmann said his lack of high-level scoring ability will result in rough moments offensively.
Holtmann said the transition has been frustrating for freshman forward E.J. Liddell, who he said has had conditioning issues, in part due to an injury that has limited his practice time.
“Throughout the life of the season, we’ll go as our older guys lead, how they lead, and where they’ll take us,” Holtmann said. “I think it’s too much to expect that for guys that are trying to find their own way a little bit.”
Unfortunately for Holtmann, even more experienced players have come down with the injury bug.
Junior guard Musa Jallow will be out indefinitely after a minimally invasive keyhole surgery on his right ankle Friday, and Holtmann said sophomore guard Justin Ahrens still isn’t back to 100 percent following a back injury he suffered over the summer.
“That wing position is something that we’re –– after [senior forward Andre Wesson] –– we’re trying to figure out a little bit to be honest with you,” Holtmann said.
Defense, ball-handling and decision-making were all areas Holtmann cited as areas of improvement for the team, and said its preseason scrimmage will be moved up to Sunday –– earlier than usual –– to allow for more time for feedback and corrections.
It might have seemed full speed ahead six months ago for the Buckeyes, but Holtmann now is bracing for a slower pace.
“I think patience is going to be required on all of our parts,” he said. “My part, our staffs part, their part as players. Probably our fans’ part.”