PORTLAND, Ore. — He knew the question was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier to be prepared. And when it was finally posed, Chris Holtmann took three seconds to take a deep breath and three more seconds to try to compose himself.
The situation he had described as a “worst-case scenario” three days earlier had some to pass. After both teams lost their opening games in the PK80 Invitational and then won the following day, Ohio State found itself on a final-day collision course with Butler — the team Holtmann coached as recently as 169 days ago.
It’s not just that Holtmann is facing his former team. That happens all the time in sports. It’s that he is facing a team that consists entirely of players he recruited and coached.
“You know, it’s not ideal,” Holtmann said inside the Moda Center. “It’s not ideal. Our coaching staff has a lot of affection for those players and certainly for that community. It’s certainly not ideal, not how we would’ve drawn it up.”
The timing of the tournament’s games put Holtmann in an undesirable situation on Friday. When Butler beat Portland State a few hours before the Buckeyes tipped against Stanford, it presented two possibilities: lose, or win and face your former players.
Holtmann said he didn’t spend much time on Friday pondering his predicament and that his only focus was on beating the Cardinal. It wasn’t until after the game, when he was asked on live TV about the game, that it really hit him, he said.
ESPN college basketball analyst and former Bowling Green coach Dan Dakich, who has called Ohio State’s first two games in Portland, didn’t envy Holtmann’s situation.
“It’ll be, in his coaching career, the most uncomfortable game he has ever coached,” Dakich said. “It worked out fantastic for everybody because they got another Butler guy (in coach LaVall Jordan), but it will be the most uncomfortable game. It will be uncomfortable for LaVall, too, because you don’t want to take over a program and lose to the guy who just left.”
On Wednesday, both sides had the chance to meet at a tip-off dinner for all teams involved in the tournament. Throughout, Butler’s players have said they would approach a potential game against their former coach like any other game and said they harbored no hard feelings toward Holtmann.
When asked whether the game would mean more to him, Ohio State forward Keita Bates-Diop deadpanned, “Why? What’s so big about that?”
It’s not just Holtmann’s ties to Butler that are at issue; he brought his whole coaching staff with him to Ohio State. That includes assistant Terry Johnson, who spent 13 years with the Bulldogs.
Earlier this year, Johnson said his family (he has three young children) had adapted to the change but said if they saw them, his kids probably would run to the Butler players before they would to Ohio State players.
Understandably, Butler’s fans haven’t been entirely supportive of the move. Holtmann has told media outlets that someone anonymously mailed him $1 and that he regrets a tweet during Ohio State’s coaching search that seemed to indicate he wasn’t going anywhere. There even is a hashtag from some of the more ardent Bulldogs fans: #Boltmann.
With all the extracurriculars surrounding the game, Holtmann tried to keep his message simple.
“Listen: As much as possible I want to make it about the players and not us as coaches,” he said.