Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann makes a face at a foul called on one of his players during the first half of the game against Rutgers Feb. 12. Ohio State won 72-66. Credit: Cori Wade | Assistant Photo Editor

If it weren’t for COVID-19, Ohio State men’s basketball may have still been alive in the NCAA Tournament April 5 — the eve of the championship game in Atlanta.

Instead, a surprise announcement that day marked the third departure from the 15-man roster in 17 days, as sophomore guard Luther Muhammad joined freshman guard D.J. Carton and freshman forward Alonzo Gaffney in early exits from the program.

While some Buckeye fans have called the roster movement a red flag for Chris Holtmann, the head coach said on a Tuesday conference call that his Ohio State program is below the average of transfers among the power six or seven conferences in college basketball the past three years.

“The reality is you are always keeping constant evaluation of what fits best, and if a young man says, ‘Hey, this is what I want,’ and in good faith, you don’t feel like it’s best for him or for the program, then I think naturally those honest conversations are gonna happen,” Holtmann said.

Holtmann declined to comment on the individual cases of Muhammad, Carton and Gaffney, but he said he’s seen a common thread with players who transfer out of a program over the years.

“Generally, players in those situations, they want a situation where maybe they are playing a different position or maybe they want more shot attempts or they want more of something and I think that is where a lot of this –– I don’t think in any cases, or very few cases, is there anything else beyond that,” Holtmann said.

Carton, Ohio State’s top recruit in the 2019 class, announced he would enter the transfer portal March 19. He averaged 10.4 points per game for the Buckeyes in 20 appearances before taking a leave of absence to address mental health issues Jan. 30. 

Three days later, 247Sports reported that Gaffney –– the No. 2 high school prospect in Ohio in 2019 –– intended to leave the program to seek professional opportunities after averaging 1.9 points in 17 games for Ohio State.

Holtmann said the decision for a player to leave a program is typically not one-sided.

“It is certainly true that in a number of those situations, the coaches are of the opinion that, you know what, it probably is best for both,” Holtmann said. “And I’m not talking specifically on any specific situation.”

Though he doesn’t expect the number of transfers out of the program to remain this high, Holtmann, who is in his fourth year as head coach, said it’s not unexpected for some roster shuffling to occur in a coach’s first three or four years at a school.

But the Buckeyes have been the beneficiary of the transfer portal, as well. Holtmann’s starting lineups have included transfers in each of the past two seasons, with then-redshirt senior guard Keyshawn Woods in 2018-19 and redshirt junior guard C.J. Walker in 2019-20.

Ohio State added forward Justice Sueing before this past season after two years at California, and in this offseason alone, Holtmann has landed Harvard graduate transfer forward Seth Towns, Bucknell junior guard Jimmy Sotos and Utah State redshirt junior guard Abel Porter.

“This has been changing for a number of years, so I don’t really look at it like this way is exactly how it has to be, or that way is exactly how it has to be,” Holtmann said. “I think we’re always evaluating what we can do and what we can do better and how we can improve.”

Holtmann said from 2007 to ’10, just one starter in the NCAA’s Final Four teams was a four-year transfer, but in the past four years, there have been 13. Still, Holtmann said that moving forward, he expects the bulk of his rosters to be centered around players he recruited out of high school.

Even if the fanbase and other onlookers are skeptical about the unexpected roster turnover, Holtmann said he’s confident in the group he’s assembled. 

“I feel as good about this roster leading into the offseason as I’ve felt in any offseason,” Holtmann said.