It was a 50-50 chance, and Chris Holtmann was pretty sure which side of the coin flip he was going to get.
Ohio State was likely to draw Creighton or Villanova in the Gavitt Games, and Holtmann told one of his support staff members during the summer that he figured the Buckeyes would draw Villanova. The intrigue was built in: The game would pit two teams with lofty preseason expectations led by coaches known for memorable head-to-head meetings while Holtmann was at Butler in the Big East.
Holtmann's hunch was right, and we'll see what happens Wednesday night when the No. 16 Buckeyes play the No. 10 Wildcats for an early season test the likes of which hasn't been played at Value City Arena in eight years.
Villanova is the first ranked nonconference team to come to Value City Arena for a November game since the Buckeyes beat No. 7 Florida and No. 3 Duke during the 2011-12 season.
“I hope it's not understated how important it is,” Holtmann said of hosting a top-10 team in the nonconference schedule. “I think to have a team of this caliber come in, it's a great thing. It's great for our program. I know our guys are excited. I hope Buckeye Nation is excited.”
During his three seasons at Butler, Holtmann went 2-4 against Jay Wright, who led the Wildcats to the 2016 NCAA championship. During the 2016-17 season, the Bulldogs beat No. 1 Villanova at home and then won the road rematch.
Along the way, Holtmann and Wright struck up a relationship. When Holtmann was considering leaving Butler for Ohio State, Wright tried to persuade him to stay for the good of the Big East. When the Buckeyes were mired in a five-game losing streak last season, Wright was among a handful of coaches Holtmann called to solicit advice. On Tuesday, Holtmann was effusive with his praise for Wright and the team he has assembled.
“I always told him I had so much respect for how they played and how he coached his teams,” Wright told The Dispatch during the summer. “They always gave us trouble and they beat us a lot, but we always learned from those games. We would talk about that in the offseason and how great our games were, how much respect we had for each other.”
The Buckeyes have prepared for the game without senior Andre Wesson, a defensive linchpin who remains unavailable because of a fractured right eye socket suffered in the season opener. His absence significantly affects Ohio State on the perimeter against a Villanova team that Holtmann said has as much size and length as any he's coached against.
Sophomore guard Duane Washington Jr. said Holtmann has told the Buckeyes that he recruits players who “live for these moments” on big stages against big teams. Otherwise, the preparation has mostly been business as usual.
“He's done a good job approaching it like it's a regular game,” Washington said. “We know as a group, it might mean a little more to him being in a different conference now at a power-five school. We're going to do it for him, obviously, but we're going to do it for each other.”
Holtmann downplayed his connection with Wright, noting that the two weren't going to dinner Tuesday night or anything like that. Given their shared history, and the early promise for both teams this season, a win would be its own dessert.