ROSEMONT, Ill. – Conference expansion hadn’t yet rendered the Big Ten’s name factually inaccurate when Sam Barry took over the Iowa men’s basketball program. It was the 1922-23 season, and the 10-team conference that featured Chicago among its ranks saw the Hawkeyes finish tied atop the standings at 11-1 with Wisconsin.
Until Wednesday night, that was the last time a Big Ten coach had won more than seven straight conference games to open his coaching career. With a 71-65 win against Northwestern at Allstate Arena, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann earned his seventh straight win to open his Big Ten career. In the process, Holtmann is the first coach since Barry to do so and now off to the third-best conference debut in history.
After the win, though, he wasn’t much interested in talking about it.
“It really does not mean anything,” Holtmann said. “I think that’s a reflection on the players as much as anything. I firmly believe that. We’ve got a group that obviously had a really good player returning from injury and then we’ve got a group that really likes each other.”
In addition to Iowa, Wisconsin and Chicago, the Big Ten of 1922-23 was comprised of Michigan, Illinois, Purdue, Indiana, Northwestern, Ohio State and Minnesota. The Buckeyes were 4-11 overall that year and just 1-11 in conference play.
Barry did not achieve long-term success in Iowa City. In a seven-year coaching career with the program, he finished tied for first one more time but otherwise finished in the bottom four in four seasons before departing after the 1928-29 season. Barry finished his career 62-54 overall and 43-41 in the Big Ten. In 1922-23, the Hawkeyes had close wins against Michigan (20-18 and 18-17), Indiana (19-13) and Chicago 20-12 and also beat Knox 21-11 in the non-conference schedule.
The win moved Holtmann into sole possession of third place after his 6-0 start had tied him with Tom Davis, another Hawkeye coach and the only one to start with five or more conference wins since 1952. It’s also worth noting that four of the seven games have come away from Value City Arena.
The start to conference play for the Buckeyes, who finished 7-11 last season and have already equaled their win total, was not lost on sophomore center Micah Potter.
“It’s awesome, I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Obviously we’ve got another big one on Saturday with Minnesota in a pretty cool arena and that’s what our focus is on now. We’ll celebrate this one a little bit but we’ve got to get onto the next one, but 7-0? I can’t tell you the last time Ohio State won seven in a row in the Big Ten?”
I gave Potter the answer: 2010-11, when the Buckeyes opened with 11 straight conference wins.
“Well then, shoot, we’ve got to get 12-0,” he said. “But obviously our goal is the next game and winning the next game. It’s cool to break all kinds of records but we’re focusing on the next game.”
The record for the best coaching start in Big Ten history belongs to Walter Meanwell, who started 12-0 with Wisconsin in 1912. Seven teams were in the conference then, and Ohio State wasn’t one of them: Wisconsin, Purdue, Chicago, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Northwestern.
The Badgers went 15-0 that season with wins against the likes of Beloit (31-18), Ripon (54-13), Chicago (18-15) and Iowa (30-5).
So while Holtmann downplayed his place in the record books, it’s clear he’s facing a different type of competition than most of the others on the list. And he gave the credit to his players.
“It’s easy to like each other when you’re on the streak that we’re on right now, but I sensed that they liked each other even when we had some rough spots earlier this year,” he said. “Our chemistry’s been fantastic. I also think right now we have a hungry team. Now, we’ll see how much that continues, but that’s a great credit to our group and the leadership of our group.”
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