An inside look

Behind-the-scenes access shows how Buckeyes prepare for Big Ten opponent

Adam Jardy
Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann, left, shows the players video of previous games against Penn State during the walk-through before a Feb. 7 game at Value City Arena. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

The play occurred on just one possession of 124 in what became a 74-70 Ohio State win over Penn State in men’s basketball on Feb. 7.

Trailing 17-9 and on offense, Penn State’s Rasir Bolton was called for a foul and turnover as he pushed off against Ohio State’s Keyshawn Woods on a simple dribble handoff that the Nittany Lions use frequently to start their offense.

Immediately, Woods flexed his muscles and yelled in the direction of the Ohio State bench. In the free throw lane, point guard C.J. Jackson grinned and clapped his hands as Bolton turned to hand the ball to the officials.

To the Buckeyes, however, it wasn’t just one routine play, a straightforward turnover that occurs every game.

During the previous day’s practice, and again during the game-day walk-through, that situation was one specific piece of a game plan — one of dozens of plays that were identified and emphasized by the coaching staff. Coaches stressed to the players to watch for Bolton’s push-off, then saw it come to fruition, to the Buckeyes’ benefit, on the court at Value City Arena.

As Ohio State prepared for the Nittany Lions, coach Chris Holtmann and his staff allowed The Dispatch into their meeting rooms, practice, shoot-around and film sessions during the 36 hours leading up to tipoff. They offered an inside look at what it takes to adequately prepare for a high-level college basketball game — and how even all the preparation in the world can still come up lacking.

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The day before

A film session that verges on two hours is coming to a close as a Dispatch reporter enters Holtmann’s office inside the arena. It’s noon on a gray Wednesday, the day that is the most intense for game preparation.

Holtmann, at his desk wearing glasses, is running through clips of Penn State’s defense with assistant coach Ryan Pedon, who is in charge of Ohio State’s offense, and Mike Netti, special assistant to the head coach. The goal is to take OSU’s established package and sprinkle in a few wrinkles specific to the opponent.

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Technical terms and team-specified jargon flow freely as Pedon, seated on a couch with a laptop loaded with clips and a manila folder full of stats, will analyze a specific clip as many as eight times while trying to figure out if another team’s approach could work for the Buckeyes.

“Could we complete that flare pass?” Pedon asks. “Would they close out that hard on our guys?”

Plenty of specifics are offered. When prompted, Netti presents a list of where on the floor and when during the game the Nittany Lions defense trapped the Buckeyes in games last season.

Throughout, Holtmann updates his plans for the day’s practice, No. 78 on the season. The points of emphasis: “Dominate effort plays. Be a great teammate. Set the rules. Play with an edge.”

There’s a knock on the opaque glass door, and assistant coaches Terry Johnson and Mike Schrage enter. Pedon exits and the defensive film session begins. Again, everyone contributes: Johnson, who oversees the defense, has specific ideas in place, while Schrage knows seemingly every detail about each player on Penn State’s roster and can pull relevant statistics without hesitation.

A zone defense is suggested, but Holtmann shoots that down with a simple, “We have to find a way to guard them.” Throughout both meetings, the atmosphere is of collaboration with Holtmann routinely deferring to his staff.

“Obviously, the head coach is going to drive certain things for sure, but I think that it needs to be collaborative or else I’ve done a poor job hiring and I’ve done a poor job leading if they don’t feel highly invested,” Holtmann said after the game. “Now, they will be overruled if I disagree on a certain situation, but I’m very much asking their opinion, their thoughts. I’ve always told them, ‘I didn’t hire you to have a weak opinion. I hired you to have a strong voice.’ ”

All of the plans are paused, though, when Holtmann take a phone call: Starting center Kaleb Wesson and reserve forward Jaedon LeDee are sick. LeDee isn’t able to practice, and Wesson is available only for walk-through situations.

When practice starts, Wesson is there but wearing a mask over his mouth, and Holtmann asks athletic trainer Jeff Deits if the sophomore is even allowed to touch the basketball. A jumbo bottle of hand sanitizer is brought courtside, and everyone involved with practice is required to sanitize their hands during each break.

Practice runs for 1 hour, 49 minutes. Holtmann starts with some film work on a television wheeled to the corner of the court and concludes with nine minutes of individual shooting. Overseeing it all, Holtmann consults the practice plan devised with his staff.

Holtmann is never vulgar (the closest to an unprintable word he utters is frickin’), but he often is intense. He uses his whistle to stop things if drills aren’t going at his desired pace. At one point, he calls out a freshman for throwing soft passes described as “lollipops.”

The message is reinforced throughout every drill, film session and conversation: Regardless of how the plans are made, the Buckeyes have to execute them with a high degree of force to be successful. Players are challenged throughout: If you don’t guard this guy properly, “He’ll go for 30!” Holtmann warns. Another Penn State player: “He’s coming at your throat!”

The day ends with little mention to Penn State’s three-quarters-court press because, based on the extensive scouting done, there is little concern that the Nittany Lions will break form and press the Buckeyes. When it’s over, the Buckeyes are directed to touch each teammate before leaving the court, and high-fives, fist-bumps and handshakes followed.

Game day

The Buckeyes, including Wesson and LeDee — both cleared to play — start to trickle onto the floor at Value City Arena for the final walk-through and shooting sessions just after 2:30 p.m., about 4½ hours before tip-off.

On the court, Holtmann delivers instructions tailored to defending specific Penn State players and spends significant time detailing ball-screen coverages. Players are again instructed to blow up dribble handoffs to get “at least one illegal screen” call against the Lions in the course of the game.

The mood is positive but not complacent. Ohio State goes through its plans at half speed, if that, with players donned in all manner of mismatched team gear. As in film sessions the day before, much of the talk is jargon-heavy, pointing out adjusted coverages and offensive actions in terms that that most casual fans likely would never recognize. In one case, for instance, the Buckeyes are instructed to pretend to fake a screen but instead do a fly cut to the perimeter.

A final warning is offered at the end of the 45-minute session: Penn State typically will trap during the last four minutes of games, so ball security is stressed. Then the team moves to a film room adjacent to the locker room, where Pedon uses a clicker and laser to go over some pointers as players occupy the entirety of two rows in what resembles a tiny movie theater.

Pedon tells the Buckeyes to “outlast them with soundness and details,” and that “if you’re great screeners, we’ll get great shots.”

Some players head to a religious pregame talk inside the players’ lounge, where they hear a message of coming together and a reflection centered around a Bible verse that reads, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

It would be tested in about two hours.

Against a surprise three-quarters-court press by Penn State, the Buckeyes come unraveled late in the first half, turning over the ball on three straight possessions in less than a minute. Against an amped-up Nittany Lions team every bit as physical as the coaches warned, the Buckeyes commit 18 turnovers and briefly trail during the second half before scratching out the four-point win.

In his postgame news conference, Holtmann takes the blame for his team’s struggles against the press. The next day, he tells The Dispatch how he watched more film on Penn State than any other opponent this season, partly because the Buckeyes lost three times to Penn State last season, Holtmann’s first as OSU coach.

Taking it further, Holtmann said he had 35 clips he wanted to show the team in addition to the usual film load. “I was trying to do too much,” he said.

The result was a mixed bag, though it wasn’t for lack of effort. Ultimately, the desired result was achieved, and the Buckeyes made enough plays late to grind out a win in a game that lasted nearly 2½ hours. The evening continued much later for Holtmann, who said he was up until about 2:45 a.m. rewatching the game and breaking down film.

Part of that is the adrenaline that comes with being part of a high-level competitive event. Part of it is just being wrapped up in the result, win or lose. And part of it is wondering what could have been done differently to improve the result.

Case in point: Of the five new offensive actions the Buckeyes planned to deploy against Penn State, they ended up running just one of them.

“We spent four hours talking about a few actions, how we were going to attack them, and then they came out in the game and did way more switching than we anticipated,” he said. “You look back on it and say, ‘We just wasted four hours of prep time,’ but that’s part of it.”

Then it was onto the next one.


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