Revved-up roster will be a test for Holtmann

Rob Oller
Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann won 45 games over his first two seasons in charge of the program. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

Chris Holtmann is the guy who trades in his base model 2001 Honda Civic for a loaded 2019 Odyssey with all the bells and whistles. He knows how to drive, but how well does he transition from cassette deck to Bluetooth?

Holtmann can coach. Two seasons of taking Ohio State teams with average talent to the NCAA Tournament has proved that. Now comes the next step. He handed himself the keys to a special edition roster and will be expected to navigate to the Sweet 16 and beyond.

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The talent is there, better than anything Holtmann has coached. At least that’s what we’re being told. As Ohio State opens against Cincinnati on Wednesday night at Value City Arena, the roster includes Kaleb Wesson, who has dropped almost 30 pounds by training harder and eating less. (Don’t ask him about having to give up sour cream. Sore subject.) And there's a supporting cast that on any given night can make the Buckeyes good enough to finish in the top three of the Big Ten.

Mostly, fans are frothing over the new editions, which is saying something given how much saliva gets used up on football in this town. Freshmen D.J. Carton (point guard), E.J. Liddell (power forward) and Alonzo Gaffney (forward) helped Holtmann build the nation’s 15th-best 2019 recruiting class, and first in the Big Ten, according to 247Sports.

Holtmann’s best class at Butler ranked 47th, which provides context for comments he made when hired by Ohio State that he looked forward to coaching increasingly elite talent. His Butler teams were hardly stiffs, but Ohio State should consistently attract more blue-chip talent than the Bulldogs, who in their own state alone must compete with Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame for players.

But attracting five-star talent and being able to coach it are two different tasks. Elite athletes can be equated with thoroughbreds in that they are extremely gifted but sometimes challenging to handle. They also sometimes must be broken from relying too much on their talent.

As Ohio State football coach Ryan Day explained it Tuesday, an hour before Holtmann addressed the media, “There’s certain times, with talented guys, where they get away with talent. That’s not good. We can’t allow that to happen.”

Holtmann picked up on Day’s thinking.

“Any time you coach a really good, talented player, your job is to hold them accountable at the highest level every day,” he said. “That’s not to say you just make up reasons to yell at the best player, because players can see through that. But what talented players have to see early on is they are going to be held accountable. And if they’re committed to being their best, they are going to want that.”

Where it gets interesting is that what Holtmann expects from his most talented players, fans will expect from Holtmann. The 47-year-old is beginning his third season in Columbus having banked plenty of benefit of the doubt.

The Buckeyes went 25-9 in his first season, including a second-place finish in the Big Ten and a trip to the NCAA Tournament, where they lost in the second round to Gonzaga. Holtmann benefited his first season from having inherited NBA talent in Keita Bates-Diop. But he showed with last season’s 20-15 finish, which included another second-round NCAA appearance, that he can win without anything close to turnkey NBA talent.

Now, can he win with a roster of top-rated recruits who must mesh with veterans who don’t all own blue-chip talent? My sense is it won’t be a problem. Holtmann understands people, how we tick and sometimes tock. He’ll press the right buttons on this shiny new ride.


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