Chris Holtmann hadn’t been Ohio State's men's basketball coach long when he popped into a Barnes & Noble near his Upper Arlington home. The Buckeyes, reeling from a season that saw them miss out on the NCAA and NIT tournaments, weren’t expected to do much in Holtmann’s first season.
Staring him in the face was a full-color reminder. The cover of Athlon Sports’ 2017-18 preview magazine featured Indiana’s Robert Johnson on its cover and a headline reading, “It’s Miller’s Time at Indiana,” a reference to newly hired coach Archie Miller.
“In Columbus, in my neighborhood, the college basketball preview comes out and it has a team in our league that was at that time not even picked to finish in the top four or five, but (still) none of our players were on the cover,” Holtmann said. “They had a team from our league’s player on the cover. I thought, to me, that was a significant statement about how relevant our program was at the time.”
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The Hoosiers, picked ninth in the magazine, drew the cover ahead of the Buckeyes, who were picked 12th with the explanation: “Chris Holtmann left more talent at Butler than he inherits at OSU.”
Clearly expectations were low. But two seasons later, Holtmann and the Buckeyes will enter the offseason with drastically different projections. After consecutive NCAA Tournament experiences while navigating a hole blown in the roster thanks to the disappearance of the five-man 2015 recruiting class, Holtmann has a core group of experienced players that includes just one senior and will combine with a top-10 recruiting class.
The national expectations have raised correspondingly. With rosters in flux as players test their NBA draft stock, the Buckeyes are widely projected as a preseason top-25 team next season. Although Holtmann dismissed the concept of rankings in April — “(they exist) so people can click on them,” he said — the thought of higher expectations isn’t something the coach is shying away from.
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“I didn’t get into coaching at the highest level of college basketball to be fearful of expectations,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. One of the things that we tried to do and wanted to do as quickly as we could when we got the job was to become relevant as a program. As quickly as we could, we wanted to get relevant as a program.”
It’s not all been roses, as last season’s 8-12 Big Ten record demonstrates. The same goes for a five-game losing streak that threatened to derail a 12-1 start. But the experiences that the bulk of this roster has gotten, from winning through adversity to reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament in consecutive years, have the Buckeyes ahead of schedule in Holtmann’s eyes.
“I wasn’t sure this quickly we would be in a position to where we would have guys that have had early tournament success, both getting there and then competing,” he said. “That’s just the reality. Now, I also know that we have a lot of work ahead of us and significant question marks about how we’re going to be in certain areas given the year we just went through in the Big Ten. But I feel like our program is very healthy now.”
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And if a tangible sign of progress is needed, Holtmann’s newsstand before last season provided a few.
“Well, I went back and checked last year and C.J. Jackson was on the cover,” he said, before deadpanning, “I felt good. Got warm and fuzzy inside.”