A few weeks ago, Ohio State had a banquet for its former men’s basketball players. There, as players signed a cutout of the state of Ohio that would be emblazoned in the main hallway of the practice facility, the talk drifted to last season’s surprise pursuit of a Big Ten title and an NCAA Tournament win.
It was safe, familiar ground for coach Chris Holtmann. It was also a line in the sand.
“I said then, ‘This is the last time I’m talking about last year’s team,’ ” Holtmann said Wednesday at media day inside the practice gym. “It’s time to look forward. Last year’s team was last year’s team. We’re really proud of what that group accomplished. Now is the time for this group to form its own identity.”
That quest begins Thursday with the first practice of the season. The faces lost from last season’s team loom as large as the questions surrounding much of the returnees. Expectations are high that senior guard C.J. Jackson can become an all-conference player and that the offense can flow more through sophomore center Kaleb Wesson while graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods provides steady play and leadership.
Beyond that, though …
“This is our most challenging year since we’ve been together (as a coaching staff),” Holtmann said. “Our schedule … is the hardest schedule that we’ve put together. I think you combine that with the number of new faces that we’re implementing and some of the older guys we have returning, I think we have some challenges as a staff and a program, but that’s also exciting.”
A few players will be limited as practice gets underway: junior center Micah Potter for about a week because of a thumb injury and Woods for a day or two because of a strained hamstring, Holtmann said. In addition, Holtmann said the Buckeyes are waiting on some testing for transfer CJ Walker, who will sit out the season as a transfer.
What the full picture will look like once all available players are up and running will be determined in the coming weeks. This time a year ago, Holtmann said he knew he had an all-conference player in Keita Bates-Diop; he didn’t know he had the eventual Big Ten player of the year.
Left unsaid is the fact that this season’s team doesn’t appear to have anyone with a similar ceiling, or at least not yet. That means expectations might change externally, but Holtmann said the expectation to perform to potential remains unchanged for every player.
“There will be long days for our guys,” Holtmann said. “They’ll be tired. We’re going to have to pay the price to play well early in the year and that requires a lot of work between now and November.”
The Buckeyes open the season Nov. 7 at Cincinnati as the Bearcats open a new arena. It’s an immediate challenge for a team that might not have the same starting lineup for more than 20 games this season, by Holtmann’s estimation.
That means jobs are there for the taking.
“Guys want to work hard every day,” sophomore Musa Jallow said. “It’s an exciting environment to be around.”