BOISE, Idaho — Throughout his first season at Ohio State, Chris Holtmann has dipped into his bag of tricks seeking new ways to motivate his team.
Those efforts did not extend into Saturday night’s second-round NCAA Tournament game against Gonzaga, though. In a rematch of a game that saw the Buckeyes take a 27-point loss in late November as part of the PK80 Invitational in Portland, Oregon, No. 5 seed Ohio State had to tangle with the fourth-seeded Zags at Taco Bell Arena with a Sweet Sixteen berth in the balance.
And in case that game wasn’t at the forefront of minds of the Ohio State players and fans, the team’s managers hammered it home with their game-day apparel. When the game between Kentucky and Buffalo came to a close and the Buckeyes began making their way to the court, one manager after another emerged wearing identical shirts: the black, short-sleeved polo shirts worn for the PK80 emblazoned with the logo on the left sleeve.
After Ohio State’s season came to an end with the 90-84 loss, Holtmann made it very clear from inside the locker room: he had nothing to do with the wardrobe choice.
“Yeah, that wasn’t my idea,” he said. “Good idea, but I can’t take credit for it. We had plenty of motivation, but obviously the mangers went off on their own script there and came up with the idea. I guess it’s a good idea. Good for them. Our managers do an unbelievable job and they feel a part of this thing and I think they were as hungry to get to the Sweet Sixteen and beat Gonzaga as any of them.”
As Ohio State prepared to face No. 12 seed South Dakota State in its first-round game, Holtmann had team video coordinator Kyle Davis assemble predictions from national analysts of a pending Jackrabbits upset win. The result was a folder of more than two-dozen quotes predicting an Ohio State loss, and Holtmann referenced that with his team throughout the week. And after the Buckeyes won Thursday evening, Holtmann sarcastically thanked “all the fine, smart, clever journalists that didn’t pick us” while being interviewed on the television broadcast, adding that, “Trust me: our guys were aware of that.”
Friday, he said he was only joking and having a little bit of fun during the interview. Saturday, he said he hadn’t considered demanding a wardrobe change once he saw the situation at hand.
“I didn’t even see it until one of the managers was actually looking at someone tweet about them wearing shirts,” he said. “To be honest with you, that’s the furthest thing from my mind at that point. They can wear whatever. As long as they have a shirt on, I don’t care what they wear.”
It’s been a big season for Holtmann, who was named Big Ten coach of the year and is a finalist for the national honor as well. And with that success comes the likelihood that the coaching carousel in college basketball could claim a member of his coaching staff.
Holtmann brought all three of his assistants with him from Butler, and each is well-regarded within the industry. Both Ryan Pedon and Terry Johnson interviewed for the Butler coaching job vacated by Holtmann before ultimately following him to Columbus, and Mike Schrage is a rare commodity who has spent significant time on both coasts while working at first Duke and then Stanford.
As the Buckeyes transition into the offseason, Holtmann said he encourages his staff members but asks that they keep him in the loop on potential opportunities.
“They keep me informed,” he said. “They’re pretty open and honest and transparent about anything that comes up. Obviously when you’re taking over a program you’d like to have some consistency within your program, within your staff, and they know that, but when you have success you’re going to lose staff guys at some point. The best way to not lose your staff is to lose, and we’d rather not do that.”
A source indicated to The Dispatch that all three coaches are more than likely to return next season.
Junior forward Keita Bates-Diop has a decision to make regarding his future, and the Big Ten’s player of the year said he will spend time talking with his family, the coaching staff and some former Ohio State players before he chooses to either declare for the NBA draft or return for a fifth year.
Assuming the projected first-round pick does not return, that would leave C.J. Jackson as the lone recruited scholarship player senior on next year’s team as the roster is currently constructed. It means an increased leadership role is in the offing for the point guard.
I asked him what he took away from this season and this team’s upperclassmen that he will use next year.
“The fact that it’s almost over,” he said. “Only a few more chances to put on the jersey, play with this group of guys that you share special moments with. As fast as this year went by and as much fun we had, even with the guys that are leaving, it’s over. My time is next and I want to cherish every moment.”