Thad Matta was the kid in a high-rise elevator pressing every button to get Ohio State men’s basketball off the ground floor. It didn’t work. For the past two seasons, the program just sat there, resulting in Ohio State firing its all-time-winningest men’s basketball coach in June.
In stepped Chris Holtmann, hired five days after OSU let Matta go. So far, the new coach is pushing all the right buttons. At least it feels like as if the Buckeyes are headed up. The momentum initiated by the former Butler coach is more a matter of positive optics than improved play, but you have to start somewhere.
Ohio State opens the season on Friday against Robert Morris, but the improvement process began the moment Holtmann came aboard. Almost immediately, current and former players noticed how the new coaching staff, which includes assistants Ryan Pedon, Terry Johnson and Mike Schrage, brought energy and fresh enthusiasm.
Bringing in Scoonie Penn, who serves as director of player development, also was smart because it connects a celebrated former player to the present and gives the staff a central Ohio resource. Plus, Penn lights up a room and keeps things positive, which is something that has been lacking in recent years.
“They're all about high-energy positivity, not to say the old coaching wasn't,” center Micah Potter said of the new staff.
Or maybe the former coaches weren't as much? It is always difficult to praise the new kid on the block without making the neighborhood regulars look bad. No disrespect to Matta and his staff, but it is not simply everyone’s imagination that the previous regime was driving 67 in a 70-mph zone.
Blame it on Matta’s health, the modern culture of kiss-butt recruiting — which he despised — or simply having become a little complacent, but the energy level seemed to decrease each of the past four seasons. Perhaps coincidentally, the Buckeyes’ record dropped too, from 29-8 (2012-13) to 25-10 (2013-14) to 24-11 (2014-2015) to 21-14 (2015-2016) to 17-15 (2016-17).
Again, the Buckeyes are yet to take the court, and when they do, it probably won’t be pretty. I would expect a record similar to last season's, but Holtmann gets a honeymoon period, because that’s how these things work.
Set aside the W-L record, and everything about Ohio State is trending up.
Let’s take a look at what Holtmann has done to bring optimism — or at least increased excitement — to the program.
• The Cincinnati Thing. Holtmann won admirers for pushing for a terrific two-fer. Not only does he want the Buckeyes to play the Bearcats during the regular season (for the first time since 1921), but scheduling UC also checks the box of Ohio State strengthening its nonconference schedule. Along those lines, Holtmann also has hinted of trying to create something akin to the Crossroads Classic, which features Butler, Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame each season. Only this would be Ohio State, Xavier, Cincinnati and Dayton. Sign me up.
• The Buckeyes Thing. Ohio State will follow in the footsteps of the football team by having the hoopsters sing "Carmen Ohio" after games. Holtmann also wants to play some games in St. John Arena. Neither measure is going to take the Buckeyes deep into March, but Holtmann is doing the little things to win back fans and fortify the ones who never left but have become somewhat disillusioned by the ho-hum atmosphere surrounding men’s basketball.
Other examples include Holtmann having fielded questions from season-ticket holders and providing them a tour of the Schottenstein Center, and holding a practice that was open to students — again similar to what Urban Meyer does with football.
• The Ohio Recruiting Thing. Holtmann’s initial recruiting got off to a slow start, but he hit a home run early when Kyle Young de-committed from Butler to follow him to Columbus. Securing Young fulfills a vow by Holtmann to sign more Ohio recruits, something that Matta took heat for in the latter stages of his career. Holtmann then landed another Ohioan, Justin Ahrens from Versailles, during a September stretch in which four players committed to the Buckeyes in less than a week.
Speaking of tapping into talent, reports are that Ohio State has blanketed the recruiting trail. If a high school player has mentioned the Buckeyes as a potential destination, an OSU coach has been on-site and in contact.
All in all, Holtmann is making friends and influencing people. The next challenge is winning games. My gut says that will happen, too, eventually. This guy has the right stuff. Both on the surface and deep down.