Chris Holtmann wasn’t the Big Ten men's basketball coach of the year in his second season at Ohio State. He didn’t have a player earn all-conference honors higher than honorable mention, a far cry from an inaugural season in which he coached the player of the year.

But after again reaching the NCAA Tournament and exceeding preseason expectations, there’s an argument that Holtmann did a more impressive job this season than he did last season. And it’s one that Gene Smith, Ohio State’s athletic director and Holtmann’s boss, subscribes to.

“If you look at those teams that have a chance to truly go real deep and be championship teams, they’ve usually got one pro player,” Smith said. “Maybe two. Then in a lot of cases, three. So you look at our team last year, he had really two pro players: one that’s in the NBA (Keita Bates-Diop) and one that’s overseas (Jae’Sean Tate).

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“This year, I think you have a couple guys that can go overseas, but whether they’re NBA players? Eh. To me, you could literally say this may have been his best coaching job.”

Since leaving Gardner-Webb and the one-bid Big South Conference, Holtmann has reached the NCAA Tournament in his five years as a coach at the high-major level. In his three years at Butler and his first at Ohio State, he won at least one game each time.

It’s the kind of success that Ohio State great Jim Jackson, now an analyst who will be part of the broadcast team for Friday’s game against Iowa State, said he saw coming while he was calling Big East games for Fox Sports as Holtmann was leading Butler.

“This man can coach and he’s a great person and he’s all about family atmosphere, respect, playing the game the right way,” Jackson recalled telling friends in Columbus. “You see that with the way a less-talented Ohio State team plays, but they do play hard and they do play together. They’re just not as talented as some of the other teams they have faced, but you can see where the influence of coach Holtmann is there.”

>> Read more: Ohio State defied expectations by making NCAA Tournament

The Buckeyes earned a No. 11 seed, the lowest in school history, but avoided the First Four games in Dayton and will face No. 6 seed Iowa State in a Midwest Regional game in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Last year, Ohio State was a No. 5 seed and beat No. 12 seed South Dakota State before falling to No. 4 seed Gonzaga.

This year required more sweat and elbow grease than years past.

“It probably does make you hungrier because you’re grateful that you’re in and that you’re included,” Holtmann said. “I think you’re really hungry. We know we’re playing an outstanding team, and that’s the beauty of the NCAA Tournament: You don’t play well, you’re going home.”

Throughout the season, Smith said he took note of how Holtmann continued to trust his young guards despite a concerning turnover issue that has been addressed but not eradicated, and how Holtmann would switch to a zone defense “at the perfect time” to throw an opponent off-balance.

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When Holtmann was hired, Smith repeatedly cited a need to improve the program’s recruiting to put it back on track. With a top-10 class signed for next season and all but two key contributors slated to return, a record like this season’s 19-14 is expected to be a blip on the radar.

“That’s the plan he’s working and the model he’s working,” Smith said. “Then if things work out you get an Andre Wesson (as a senior) who’s an experienced, on the floor and off the floor guy, and Kaleb (Wesson as a junior), experienced, the meld is right. I’m excited about the trajectory. If we can keep this going, I’m really excited about it.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy