It’s an odd time to be a college basketball coach. With schools shut down across the country, the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament and an ongoing dead period in the sport owing to the coronavirus pandemic, the customary offseason questions have arrived earlier than normal — but with fewer answers.
This is where Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann, like his contemporaries, finds himself during what for the past 79 years has been the most exciting time of year for the sport until now.
The Buckeyes, who closed the season with wins in nine of their final 12 games to enter the postseason feeling primed for a deep run, are instead dispersed to their homes across the country while waiting to see what lies ahead.
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In a wide-ranging interview with The Dispatch to wrap up the 2019-20 season, Holtmann touched on the status of the roster, the likelihood of keeping his coaching staff intact for another year, and even a simulation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament, released Wednesday by The Washington Post, that awarded the Buckeyes the national championship.
"It’s certainly better than a simulation where you’re beaten in the first round, that’s for sure," Holtmann said.
As it stands, Ohio State is above capacity for next season, should every eligible player on this season’s roster return. However, it is known that junior center Kaleb Wesson will test the NBA waters and enter the draft process for a second consecutive year. This time, it seems there is a higher likelihood of his being drafted should he opt against returning for his final college season.
Wesson, a second-team all-Big Ten selection who was OSU’s leading scorer and rebounder this season, is listed in the second round of most mock drafts.
Going into the season, Holtmann said, Wesson "wasn’t really on any draft boards, but he put himself into position with his play to where he is on a number of them."
"It speaks to his work ethic and his skill set that is attractive to that level. He’ll have a lot of conversations, and we’ll go through that whole process with him and provide as much assistance as he and his mom and dad want."
The unknown facing Wesson and other draft-eligible players is when the draft process might get underway, with NBA activity currently suspended due to the virus.
In Wesson’s case, the inability to work out for teams might make returning for his senior season more possible.
He’s not the only player whose status is unknown for the Buckeyes, who ended the season without freshmen D.J. Carton or Alonzo Gaffney.
Carton, a point guard from Iowa who is the highest-rated recruit Holtmann has ever signed, took a leave of absence from the program in late January to address his mental health; he eventually returned to campus but not to the team.
Forward Gaffney, meanwhile, was not in uniform or on the bench for Ohio State’s final four games of the season for reasons that have not been disclosed.
"We’re going to support them either way, whatever they feel like is best," Holtmann said. "We’ll look and see what’s best all the way around, but those are conversations I’m having with them in the coming days. I think we’ll know more shortly."
Those decisions could be even more important in the coming days. Seth Towns, a graduate transfer from Harvard with two years of immediate eligibility, has said he will pick a school this week. The Buckeyes are a finalist and possibly the favorite for Towns, a small forward from Northland High School.
"It is a unique situation with our roster," Holtmann said. "I think you always know there’s going to be some type of movement or transition. It usually takes care of itself, and I think in this case it probably will."
Staff could stay
Last year, Holtmann lost longtime assistant Mike Schrage, who became head coach at Elon, and nearly lost another before Ryan Pedon decided to remain at Ohio State rather than take an offer to become coach at Buffalo.
With college basketball at a standstill, the chances are increased that the full-time staff of Pedon, Terry Johnson and Jake Diebler will return for another season. Holtmann did say, however, that he has had staff members approached for positions already.
The National Association of Basketball Coaches canceled their annual conference at the Final Four, and there is a growing sense that the coaching carousel for the offseason could be tempered.
Most players are home
Holtmann was driving home from the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis with his wife and daughter Thursday when Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith called to tell him that the NCAA Tournament had been canceled.
OSU players were on the team bus at the time and quickly learned the news via social media, and when they returned to campus, Holtmann addressed them via FaceTime inside the team video room.
"There were guys who certainly struggled with this," Holtmann said. "We were talking about the end of a season, and also they’ve got to move out over the next couple of days. It was a difficult thing."
Atop Holtmann’s priority list that day, he said, was making sure the players were taken care of.
All but two are home: Justice Sueing, a junior who sat out the season after transferring from California, remains in Columbus while awaiting foot surgery, and freshman center Ibrahima Diallo will soon be heading to California and the family that hosted him during his final high school season while he sorts out passport issues before returning to his native Senegal.
Sueing needs to have a screw removed after undergoing surgery during the season, but because medical procedures deemed nonessential are being scrapped while hospitals prepare to handle the coronavirus, Sueing is working to get his surgery scheduled.
Until then, he remains in his Columbus apartment, where Ohio State can pay for his food and provide him with a spring break stipend, Holtmann said.