A number of times last season, Chris Holtmann’s mind would briefly flicker to the next season.
They usually weren’t good times. With the youngest team he’d ever put together, the Ohio State men's basketball coach would catch himself looking at a particularly youthful lineup on the court and thinking, “Boy, I hope this helps us next year.”
Those were his exact words Tuesday during media day in the practice gym at Value City Arena as Holtmann looked ahead to his third roster at Ohio State. It could be a familiar refrain this season on a roster that, despite possibly being the most talented in Holtmann’s nine years as a Division I coach, still is made up primarily of freshmen and sophomores.
On the cusp of Thursday's start of practice, Holtmann summed it all up this way.
“'Old' wins,” he said. “Mature talent wins. Because we’re going to play young guys, obviously, how quickly can we get them to be mature and play?”
It’s the ongoing question that will determine just what type of season the Buckeyes have. National publications are projecting everything from opening the year outside the national polls to a possible Final Four run.
A big reason for optimism is junior center Kaleb Wesson, who is back after testing the NBA waters and is perhaps entering his final season before turning pro. Slimmer and more athletic, Wesson said he’s down to 255 pounds and looking to show a more efficient and impactful game.
“It’s always constant steps to get to where I want to do,” he said. “I’m here now, so it’s just maintain it. I’m always trying to be better in my game, better with my weight. I can definitely tell in my game about the weight loss.”
Wesson said his father, former Ohio State player Keith Wesson, told him that he looks like a different person than he did at the start of his sophomore season, when he went on to lead the Buckeyes in scoring and rebounding. The NBA offered similar feedback.
“They just told me they want to see me at a lighter weight,” Kaleb said. “That’s what I’ve heard my whole career, how my athleticism and my entire game will change if I lighten up. They just wanted to see how I can rebound and finish better for the NBA.”
The Buckeyes will open practice without three faces: junior forward Musa Jallow, sophomore wing Justin Ahrens and freshman forward E.J. Liddell. Ahrens and Liddell are expected to join the team before long, Holtmann said, but Jallow is “week to week” with an undisclosed lower leg injury. Ahrens suffered a back injury during the summer, and Liddell also has an undisclosed leg injury.
Jallow, who suffered an ankle injury at the end of his freshman season that might be related to his current situation, said he will be ready by the start of the season.
“It might be good to take a step back,” he said. “I’ve been going extremely hard.”
That’s been the expectation — within reason — for each member of the program. Holtmann said he’d noticed a few upperclassmen encouraging some of the newcomers to let go of a particularly challenging summer workout and focus on the next day instead. Not surprisingly, Holtmann said that some of the team’s most experienced players have also been their most consistent throughout the summer.
Andre Wesson, the lone scholarship senior, said that’s expected of the Buckeyes regardless of what is projected externally.
“The only expectation that we have is for you to come in and work as hard as you can every day,” he said. “Wherever that work leads us is where it leads us, but that’s the only expectation we have.
"We feel as though, if we take care of that, other things will fall into place.”