Up and coming

Buckeyes can’t match titles, but hope to join elite company

Adam Jardy
Coach Chris Holtmann has led the Buckeyes to a 35-10 record since taking over last season, and the .778 winning percentage tops that of title-rich UCLA, North Carolina and Kentucky in the same span. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

There will be a graphic shown at some point during Saturday’s nationally televised doubleheader featuring Ohio State, UCLA, Kentucky and North Carolina. It will illustrate how the four men’s college basketball programs have combined to win 26 national championships, and there the Buckeyes will sit with just one.

From the standpoint of the ultimate goal, Ohio State has a long way to go to catch up to the likes of the Bruins (11), Wildcats (eight) and Tar Heels (six). It will take time. Since Chris Holtmann took over as coach, however, the Buckeyes have made progress against the blue bloods that complete the annual CBS Sports Classic.

Since the start of the 2016-17 season, the Buckeyes have the best winning percentage among the four teams that will play at the United Center on Saturday. At 35-10, Ohio State (.778) is ahead of North Carolina and Kentucky (both .723) and the Bruins (.636), its opponent.

Presented with that statistic Thursday morning, Holtmann pursed his lips and paused.

“I’m trying to figure out what that gets me right now,” he said.

His point was obvious: A 45-game stretch holds no water against double-digit titles. What it does seem to show, however, is that compared with some of the sport’s elite teams, the No. 15 Buckeyes are threatening to elbow their way into the conversation.

Why has that been the case? Holtmann had a few theories.

“The biggest thing is I think we’ve had really good kids and good players (who have) embraced, ‘This is how we’re going to compete as a team, this is how we’re going to play and hopefully we’re going to be consistent in our approach,’ ” he said. “We have to do better. Last year’s team was more consistent in their approach than this year’s team.”

It’s true that Ohio State doesn’t return to the United Center coming off its most impressive performances. The Buckeyes withstood meltdowns to close each half in last Saturday’s two-point win against Bucknell, then trudged through a dreadful first half against lowly Youngstown State before pulling away convincingly after halftime.

It hasn’t been to the standard Holtmann said he is trying to set, and the players know it.

“Coach Holtmann is very demanding,” graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods said. “He wants the best out of us at all times.”

Woods and freshman Duane Washington Jr., both first-year players at Ohio State, credited the team’s returning players for helping them understand those expectations. Still, Washington said he didn’t have a full appreciation until games got underway and film study intensified.

“Until you start playing games for him, you don’t really have the full idea,” he said. “You just have your teammates telling you. Like, if you turn it over and then you walk back on defense, obviously you’re coming out of the game. The little detailed things. It all adds up.”

Saturday, the hope is that it adds up to a win. The Buckeyes have just one while playing in this event, and it came three years ago in a 74-67 upset of No. 4 Kentucky in a game played in the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn.

That would be a start.

“I’m glad that our success here of late has been comparable and obviously we’re hungry to do more,” Holtmann said. “We haven’t had great success in this particular event as a program, so hopefully that can begin to change for us.”