Basketball

Has Buckeye Basketball Reached Its Breaking Point?

Sunday’s NCAA Tournament exit for the Ohio State men’s basketball program wasn’t unexpected. They were the underdogs against a very good Villanova team with a championship pedigree, after all.

That won’t stop some people from pointing at the fact that the Buckeyes have once again failed to get out of the first weekend of NCAA action under head coach Chris Holtmann. That fact is not in dispute, and it was made worse by last year’s loss in the first round as a 2-seed.

Does that mean it’s time to move on from Holtmann? Only the hardest diers of die hards would say yes, but there is no doubt that the clock is ticking.

Being a head coach at Ohio State is a lot like the saying “From the moment we are born, we begin to die.” From the moment a head coach gets hired at Ohio State, their seat begins to warm. That’s just the friction caused by expectation.

If we are going to start listing facts, however, there are a few other facts that should be admitted into evidence as well.

The first one — and as you read this part, I want you to repeat in your mind that “this is not an excuse, this is not an excuse, this is not an excuse” — is the fact that three of Holtmann’s five years at Ohio State have been impacted by the COVID pandemic.

Sixty percent of his seasons at Ohio State have had games and players impacted by COVID.

That’s not nothing. And before you try to dismiss it, ask yourself if you’ve found yourself annoyed or even angry about having to wear a mask somewhere in the past two years. Now try to imagine running a college basketball program with even more stringent protocols. The pandemic has impacted every one and everything.

The fact also remains, however, that every other team in the nation has been dealing with the pandemic as well, so the Buckeyes are not unique in their struggles. The better the team, the better they can withstand the difficult times. It is fair to suggest that the Buckeyes at this point in Holtmann’s tenure should be better equipped.

Perhaps they would have been better equipped this year had they not lost their second-best player before the season ever really got started. Forward Justice Sueing was going to be a key component this year but it never happened. Holtmann said during the Villanova game that they needed a third scorer to step up on offense. Sueing, EJ Liddell, and Malaki Branham would have made for a talented trio.

And would things have been different against Villanova if Kyle Young hadn’t been knocked out of the game?

Or what if point guard DJ Carton had still been around for his junior season instead of playing in front of 1,000 people a night for the Greensboro Swarm of the NBA’s G-League?

But again, a more talented team can overcome “what-ifs,” and more than anything else, Chris Holtmann is dealing with a talent issue.

I don’t think it’s entirely his fault, though. I think Ohio high school basketball has its share of blame as well.

How so?

Let’s look at some more facts and compare them to Thad Matta’s first five seasons at Ohio State, since that’s really who and what Holtmann is being held up against.

Matta, of course, was helped greatly early on by signing a pair of Indiana prospects in Greg Oden and Mike Conley, but the state of Ohio also helped him out a lot more than it has been helping out Holtmann.

Now, with the caveat of “recruiting rankings aren’t the be-all, end-all,” let’s shake out some numbers.

In the table below, you will see what level of prospects the state of Ohio produced over the course of Matta’s first six recruiting cycles and Holtmann’s first six recruiting cycles, respectively. It will give you an idea of the talent pool that each coach had to deal with.


OhioansThad MattaChris Holtmann
No. of 5-Star Players81
No. of 4-Star Players2414
No. of Top 100 Players2210
No. of Top 50 Players142
No. of Top 25 Players91
Buckeye Signees104

In Matta’s first six years, Ohio produced eight times more 5-star players, seven times more Top 50 players, and nine times more Top 25 players than in Holtmann’s first six years.

Those are some jarring numbers and they should explain a lot.

For Ohio State, recruiting has always started at home. The great teams have always had great Ohioans. Whether it was Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek in the early 1960s, Bill Hosket, Dave Sorenson, and Steve Howell in the late 1960s, Toledoan Jimmy Jackson in the early 1990s, or Michael Redd a little less than a decade later, success always began in Ohio.

Even Matta’s National Championship Runner-Up team with Hoosier-state natives Oden and Conley still featured Ohioans David Lighty, Jamar Butler, Daequan Cook, Ron Lewis, and Ivan Harris. Matta’s other great teams were littered with Ohioans like Jon Diebler, Aaron Craft, Jared Sullinger, William Buford, and so on.

Matta’s 2010-2011 team featured seven 4-star Ohioans. Holtmann has never even been able to field a team with seven scholarship players from Ohio.

It’s a stark contrast between talent pools for the two coaches and Holtmann’s teams have struggled to finish because of it.

It is also fair to say that college basketball has changed since Matta was on the sidelines for Ohio State. Sure, there are still AAU handlers out there charging for services, but transfers are as much a part of the game as recruiting is and Holtmann has been reliant upon it in his time at OSU. He has had three starting point guards at Ohio State and all three transferred in from somewhere else. CJ Jackson (a Matta holdover), CJ Walker, and Jamari Wheeler have been good point guards, but they each had limitations that ultimately held the offense back.

The inability to sign — and keep — a dynamic high school point guard that can lead and grow the offense has been disappointing at a place like Ohio State. That could change next year with 4-star point guard Bruce Thornton, who was the Gatorade Player Of The Year in the state of Georgia this past year. Or possibly with Meechie Johnson, who will be in his third year on campus next season.

It’s time for Ohio State to move away from the “coach on the floor” type of point guard and go to somebody who is going to push the ball, push his team, and push the envelope of what a Buckeye offense should be able to do.

That’s obviously too much to put on a true freshman, but it will be a step in the right direction.

If Malaki Branham returns, he will provide a solid foundation for next year’s team. Holtmann is also bringing in his best recruiting class with scorers a’plenty.

So if next year’s team doesn’t reach the Sweet 16, it will be time for Holtmann to go, right?

No.

The Sweet 16 is an arbitrary goal post that as soon as it is achieved will be pushed ahead to the Elite Eight.

Let’s not forget that Chris Holtmann had the Buckeyes ranked in the Top 10 in three of his first four years at Ohio State (and Top 13 in all five seasons). Thad Matta didn’t do that. The only other OSU coach who has is Fred Taylor. He’s also the only guy to win a men’s national championship for the Buckeye basketball program. And not even Taylor had the Buckeyes in the Top 13 each of his first five years.

There are actual reasons for Ohio State’s struggles the last few seasons and to ignore or dismiss them would be dishonest.

However, it would also be dishonest to think that Ohio State shouldn’t be able to have one of the top basketball programs in the Big Ten.

The final fact of the matter here is that Chris Holtmann has yet to do anything worthy of being fired. And another year like this one won’t change that fact.

Not advancing in the NCAA Tournament is not a fireable offense.

Not consistently being one of the three or four best programs in the Big Ten, however, eventually will be.

Just ask Thad Matta.