There wasn’t a lot known about what team Chris Holtmann had inherited for his first season at Ohio State.
Beyond a handful of veterans, whose backgrounds were dotted with injuries, inconsistent play or a combination of both, the 2017-18 Buckeyes were a team of many mysteries as the preseason got underway.
That team feels like it provided a wealth of knowledge, however, compared with the Ohio State unit that will open this season at Cincinnati on Wednesday.
The Buckeyes return a roster featuring only two players who averaged more than 19 minutes per game, and filled with players aiming to assert themselves as key contributors in what portends to be a challenging year.
Sure, there is plenty of upside across the roster. But there are more questions to be answered first.
“I think the makeup of our team, it’s maybe newer” than last year, Holtmann said. “Even though I was new to that situation, you really did have some guys that you said unless something crazy happens, those guys are going to start and probably play 25 minutes.
“We certainly have some returning guys with experience, but I think there maybe are still things that need to be evaluated more with this group.”
Throughout the preseason, there has been much intrigue and speculation regarding not only the team’s chances of returning to the NCAA Tournament but what kind of lineups Holtmann might use.
Competition, coupled with a summer exhibition trip to Spain, have given new faces such as Keyshawn Woods, Luther Muhammad and Jaedon LeDee opportunities to battle with the likes of returnees Musa Jallow, Kyle Young and others.
Even established players such as point guard C.J. Jackson have to embrace new roles.
“There was a point in the season (last year) where the huddles would almost be silent because everyone knew what we had to do at that point,” he said. “I knew my role. Now it’s a little bit different, with a lot of new faces and expectations.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys, even a lot of sophomores that didn’t get too many opportunities last year. Me being a little bit more vocal is definitely needed.”
Some history is on Ohio State’s side. The Buckeyes are one of five teams to have had a Big Ten player of the year in the last decade and all but one of those teams returned to the NCAA Tournament the following year.
The lone exception was Michigan in 2014-15, when it missed out after having had consecutive conference players of the year in Trey Burke (2013) and Nik Stauskas (2014) before going 16-16 in 2014-15.
None of that will help the Buckeyes as they try to replace Keita Bates-Diop, but it might provide some comfort as Ohio State aims to return to the postseason.
“I think our guys, they understand who we lost to graduation,” Holtmann said. “They’re bright. Yet at the same time, what they have to understand is it’s going to be much different and our margin for error, no question, is much smaller. I’m anxious to see how we respond to it.”
In addition, Holtmann said he has always found his second year at a school to be the most challenging — even if the standings don’t reflect it. Gardner-Webb made a modest improvement from 11-21 in 2010-11 to 12-20 the following year, while Butler went from 23-11 in 2014-15 to 22-11 the following year but still reached the NCAA Tournament.
The reasons for those feelings have more to do with the process of changing a culture than necessarily acquiring better talent.
“I don’t want to project or foreshadow, but (in year 2) you’re (done) dealing with all the transition and you want to get there a little quicker than maybe what you’re ready for,” Holtmann said. “I think in your mind you say, ‘We’ve been here for a year, so the second year should be easier,’ and usually they’re not easier. There’s a process to this and there’s a process to building a program that consistently has success.”
That will be on display throughout this season.
“Hopefully we can bring Ohio State back to what it was, which is Final Fours and always making tournament appearances,” junior Andre Wesson said. “I expect it to be exactly that.”