A glaring need and an unanswered question loomed large when Ohio State hired Chris Holtmann as its men’s basketball coach last summer.
A perceived drop-off in recruiting had led to the ouster of Thad Matta, the winningest coach in program history, bringing the need to recruit at an elite level to the forefront of the conversation by athletic director Gene Smith.
In stepped Holtmann, who had recruited and won against high-major programs during his three years at Butler but had signed just a top-100 recruit in Kyle Young. Would Holtmann be able to consistently go toe-to-toe with Big Ten rivals and land top recruits?
A little more than a year later, Ohio State’s 2019 recruiting class is answering the question. With commitments from two ESPN five-star recruits — forward Alonzo Gaffney and point guard DJ Carton — the Buckeyes are on pace for a top-10 recruiting class and one of their strongest in nearly a decade.
“It’s phenomenal what (Holtmann) has done,” said Corey Evans, college basketball recruiting analyst for Rivals. “He has gotten two top-30 prospects, two guys nationally pursued. And doing it so early in the process, that’s the most impressive part about it.”
Ohio State’s two-man class is ranked fifth nationally in the 247Sports class rankings and tops in the Big Ten. That ties the ill-fated 2015 class for the highest national ranking for the Buckeyes since the 2010 class finished third, but its average national ranking of its members (26.5) surpasses the 2015 class (69.8).
“It’s an excellent job,” 247Sports recruiting analyst Brian Snow said. “(Holtmann) landed his top priority at the point guard position and he landed his top priority in-state and at the forward position in Alonzo Gaffney. Any time you get two of your top priorities who are two of the best players in the country, you have to think it’s an excellent job.”
Evans and Snow credited the staff Holtmann has assembled for the success, with Evans calling assistant coaches Terry Johnson, Ryan Pedon and Mike Schrage “head coaches in waiting.”
Schrage has experience on both coasts, Johnson handles much of the Midwest and Pedon is the primary Ohio recruiter. But all three mix and match throughout the country.
Ohio State has room to sign one more member for the 2019 class as next year’s roster is constructed. With Gaffney having committed in April and Carton in July, the Buckeyes have been able to focus in on how they want to close out the class and also have been able to put in legwork on the 2020 class.
The wish list for the final missing member of the class would be either a wing player, a versatile forward or a big. Four-star power forward Zeke Nnaji from Hopkins, Minnesota, will take an unofficial visit to Ohio State this month, and four-star power forward E.J. Liddell from Belleville, Illinois, has scheduled an official visit for the weekend of Aug. 31. Liddell included the Buckeyes among his top five final schools in a list posted to Twitter on Monday afternoon.
Three-member classes can be challenging to evaluate, Snow said, but adding a player like Liddell would make the 2019 class among the strongest in recent program history.
“Obviously (recruiting) had dipped some and it’s getting back to more where it was,” he said. “Now, is it still Greg Oden and Mike Conley and Daequan Cook and David Lighty? No, it’s not, but it’s still up there. It’s up to the level where you can compete to go to Final Fours and win a national championship with.”