Ohio State men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann spoke with reporters via Zoom on Wednesday to provide some updates on his team. He looked back on this past season and ahead to the future. Here are the highlights of everything that was said.
— Wanted to echo the prayers and thoughts regarding the tragic passing of Kentucky basketball player Terrence Clarke.
— He thanked Buckeye fans who reached out after the season in support of the team and EJ Liddell. It says a lot about people when they take a moment to write a letter and he has a stack of them.
— The team spent time together on Sunday. This was a really enjoyable team to coach. Three wins over top 10 teams. Seven wins over top 25 teams. Seven straight weeks in the top 10. As gutting as the final game was, the challenge for him was making sure the team understands that the team played well and had a quality season overall. As he is prone to do, his thoughts will be on that final game, but he doesn’t want it to take away from what the players accomplished.
— Teams around the country are averaging about five transfers per team. It’s the new normal. It’s been a pretty uneventful last few weeks and yet they have added two players and lost another. They are still waiting word on EJ Liddell and Duane Washington.
— Holtmann loves Terry Johnson, his former assistant coach who left for Purdue earlier this month. He was Holtmann’s defensive coordinator the last seven years, but this was an opportunity for Johnson to coach some offense at Purdue. Holtmann believes he will be a great head coach one day. He’s excited about hiring somebody new. “I love our staff. I think we have an outstanding group.” There are a lot of people calling about the position so he’s trying to take his time. He has a list of guys in mind but he doesn’t anticipate a decision “really soon.”
— Right now they are at the scholarship limit.
— He has talked to other coaches who have gone through upsets like that in the tournament. “I think we have to lean into the fact that while we had a really good Big Ten tournament and a good regular season, this was our first year where we just did not perform in the NCAA Tournament. And we have to own that.” At the same time, you’re not a 2-seed by accident.
— He’s trying to give EJ Liddell and Duane Washington the absolute truth that he hears from NBA personnel and separate himself from any kind of personal feelings. He’s focused on what is best for those two guys. What used to be best is if you’re a first rounder, you should automatically go pro. But that has changed with the options now available to players. He has had regular conversations with both families. The decision for either guy isn’t imminent but he thinks they’ll both make the right decision and he’ll be supportive of that.
— Asked about the addition of Joey Brunk and the return of Kyle Young and the possible return of EJ Liddell making things a bit crowded in the paint, he said those things usually shake out and figure itself out. “I’m really excited about the step that Zed can take for us.”
— “I’m below average with this social media deal, admittedly.” It’s more time consuming than he cares for, but there is some importance to it. Twitter at times can be a cesspool because of the negative people, but there are times when it is important to make a statement.
— Zed Key will eventually add the perimeter shot to his game, but maybe not the jump between his sophomore and freshman year like Kaleb Wesson did. The big focus this summer will continue to be conditioning and balance. He also needs to improve his free throw shooting, but the three-point shot will eventually be coming.
— Chris Holtmann was asked to help out with USA Basketball this year but he wasn’t able. Zed Key and Meechie Johnson have been asked to try out for the U19 team. OSU doesn’t nominate players or anything like that. It’s a USA Basketball thing because they liked what they saw from both players. They both jumped at the opportunity to try out. He’s excited for them.
— The experience of playing in the tournament and being a high seed will be valuable for next year. There’s a pressure to it and now the team knows what that pressure feels like. But there is so much that will happen between now and then, including the decisions of EJ Liddell and Duane Washington.
— Jake Diebler will handle the defense for the Buckeyes. Ryan Pedon is his “offensive coordinator.” The defensive struggles from last year were on him. “I want to make sure that’s clear.”
— “I’m really excited about Jamari [Wheeler].” He can defend the ball and they lost that with CJ Walker. Meechie Johnson can defend as well. Jimmy Sotos brings different strengths. But you wait to figure all of that out once you know what your roster looks like. You need depth at point guard and they could have that next year. “I’m super excited about the step that Meechie can take as a player.” It was a good decision to add him last year and that should provide a boost next year. Jamari “can be a real pest on the ball, that’s for sure.”
— The one-time transfer waiver has been coming and it really started last year with COVID. He saw a high-major program the other day with 13 players in the portal and another team with nine. This is part of the game now. “Your job now as a general manager is as important as any job description right now.” This isn’t new at Ohio State the last few years as they have dealt with this but now fans are seeing it all over the nation.”
— Why Jamari Wheeler and Joey Brunk because they’re not exactly flashy additions? He understands fans may look at PPG immediately, but you’re trying to put together a complete team. With Wheeler, he answered questions with his perimeter play and defense and leadership. Brunk has never played more than 20 minutes per game, but he did play 20 minutes per game for Indiana and was able to provide a big presence. The Buckeyes won’t play as small as they did last year so that provides more opportunities for Brunk and Zed Key.
— He’s hopeful the team will be better defensively next year. That’s dependent upon young guys improving like they should. The returning guys also need to improve defensively, but they’ll be working on that. Playing bigger at times could affect the offense. EJ Liddell will be able to play exclusively at the four if he returns. They need to take a good, hard look to figure out what they can do to put the players in better positions to succeed defensively. But at the same time, they had the fourth-best offensive in the country last year. They had a top 20 offense and defense in 2019-2020, which leads to postseason success, but the postseason was canceled last year.
— Seth Towns’ offseason is critical. He needs to get fully healthy. “I was really proud of Seth this year.” “He helped us win games. I’m excited about what’s next for him.”
— There is going to be a change in how high school recruiting is done because of the transfer portal. There will be fewer opportunities for high schoolers because schools can go and get somebody out of the portal instead. The focus at OSU is always going to start at the high school level. He has had coaches tell him they are going to recruit exclusively via the portal.
— This past season was very tough. COVID affected everything. The players were ready to be with their families again. The guys were phenomenal and committed to following the protocols. They cared about the program and the program’s success and they deserve a ton of credit for it. Having said that, they were ready to not be tested every day and to see their families. “As they should be.” Coaches got to go home every night and be with their families and the players didn’t. The transition from the Big Ten Tournament to the NCAA Tournament also brought some challenges.
— The remarkable part of not having to cancel any games last year is that they played with a real joy each time out. It’s one thing to just grit and plow through something, but this team did it with excitement and passion.
— Familiarity with Joey Brunk and Jamari Wheeler was part of adding them, but once they dove more into them as people, they felt like these guys were the right additions as the team is currently comprised. “I admired the way that Penn State team played this year given what they went through. I always admired the way Jamari competed.”
— He feels good about the OSU recruiting classes right now. “I feel like we’re in a good position.” They have a good start with the 2022 class and they’re talking to a lot of guys. Relationships are being built. He’s excited about Malaki Branham and Kalen Etzler. Branham has a chance to grow into a special player.
— What’s it gonna take to land a 5-star big man? “I think we just have to keep swinging.” He’d love for it to be a local guy like when he would watch Thad Matta sign one seemingly every year. But he feels good about the position they’re in with some guys moving forward.
— “If both guys (stay in the draft), that would be a challenge.” If it’s the right decision for both, he’ll still be supportive. Things are being pushed back a bit due to COVID, so that brings challenges regarding timing and how it affects the team moving forward. But the first obligation is to EJ Liddell and Duane Washington to give them information so they can make the best decision. But he’s definitely aware of how that could affect the team. “But right now we’re at a bit of a standstill.”
— Asked to assess his time at Ohio State, he said he’s really hard on himself. He can be his own worst critic according to his wife and others. Objectively, looking at his time at OSU, the first two years they were picked in the bottom half of the Big Ten, but they made the tournament and won some games. Year three they were playing the best at the end and the postseason got taken away from them. “Who knows what that would have looked like.” “We have yet to have a poor season,” which can be a good thing, but also ratchets up the expectations. He’s always looking at ways to improve the program and build it larger. They’ve been ranked all four years, so there is a national relevancy that has been reached, but they have not reached the peak years of Thad Matta or Jim O’Brien. The goal is to do what Matta was able to do with this program. He couldn’t feel any better about the health of the program but recognizes they still have steps in front of them.
— Asked about scheduling, he said they spoiled fans with the schedule in year three with home non-conference games and he’s not sure they’ll get back to that. They will always try to play in preseason tournaments. The days where you can play in 9 or 10 “buy games” are over. He doesn’t want to do that and fans don’t want that. They need to build a quality schedule, but the 20-game B1G schedule has changed how you fill the schedule out. There are no major home-and-homes scheduled for this next season.
— He had coaches tell him before the Big Ten Tournament that if his team makes it to Sunday, be prepared for the toll it can take on you in the NCAA Tournament first round. He’s not saying that’s why the team didn’t perform well on the following Friday. He doesn’t want to get into all of the specifics of the things they had to go through with the hotels and the quarantines and the protocols. It was a unique experience but at the end of the day they got to have a season and that’s what they wanted.