Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann looking for ’Buckeyes’ in future recruiting classes

Adam Jardy
Shawn Phillips Jr., a four-star recruit in the class of 2022, attended the Ohio State football game against Michigan State on Saturday night during an unofficial visit and landed a scholarship offer from the Buckeyes. [Adam Jardy]

Chris Holtmann inherited an Ohio State roster that had been decimated by transfers and early departures. Now, in his third season with the Buckeyes, Holtmann has a roster at maximum capacity that projects to be one past the scholarship limit next season after signing a two-man class of 2020 last week.

It’s a situation Holtmann said he’s not concerned about because of the nature of modern-day college basketball and its ever-growing transfer rate coupled with the possibility of losing at least one player early to the NBA. In building the roster, Holtmann said he’s looked for players who not only have talent but fit into the culture his staff has been attempting to establish.

“We’re always really trying to look for unselfish guys that are going to embrace the fact that they’re playing for Ohio State,” Holtmann said Friday. “That doesn’t mean they won’t go through some growing pains as they go from being the best player on their team to a role their freshman year in college. That’s a hard transition for everybody. We’re looking for guys that can adjust. We’re looking for guys that have this really important thing called grit and the ability to persevere through hard stuff in college.

“We love kids that have been well-raised and have families that want their total development and believe that’s important to them.”

It led to them signing four-star guard Eugene Brown from Georgia and three-star power forward Zed Key from New York. Combined with a four-man freshman class, five of the last six prep players to sign with the Buckeyes hail from outside state lines.

Adding to that is the fact that the lone Ohioan, freshman Alonzo Gaffney, spent his senior season playing for a prep school in New Hampshire in an effort to get better prepared for playing in college. While recruiting the state remains a high priority, Holtmann said, the Buckeyes aren’t going to exclusively take in-state players.

“We’re just looking for the right fits as much as anything,” he said. “Last year’s class was, in a lot of ways, regional. It was Midwest-centered. This was a little bit unique and a little bit more national. We just fell in love with these two guys and their families and the needs that we felt. We just felt really strongly about them. The consistent part of our recruiting will be in our breadbasket of these states and surrounding states, but certainly we’ve went out of that and gotten guys.”

Aside from Gaffney, Ohio State’s freshmen hail from Iowa (D.J. Carton), Illinois (E.J. Liddell) and California (Ibrahima Diallo, a native of Senegal who played his senior season at a prep school). That total doesn’t include California transfer Justice Suing, the first Hawai’i native to sign with the Buckeyes.

According to the composite rankings, Ohio had no top-50 prospects in 2020 and just one in the top 100: point guard Zeb Jackson, the No. 63 overall recruit. He hails from Maumee but is playing his senior year at Montverde (Florida) Academy after picking the Wolverines over the Buckeyes.

That changes in the coming years. Ohio has a top-25 recruit in 2021 in guard Malaki Branham from Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary (he’s No. 25) and a top-100 prospect in guard Meechie Johnson, who is at Willoughby International Sports Academy. Johnson has already verbally committed to the Buckeyes alongside fellow Ohioan Kalen Etzler from Convoy Crestview and Branham holds an Ohio State offer.

In 2022, Ohio has four top-50 prospects including five-star guard Chris Livingston from Akron Buchtel, the No. 3 national recruit. He holds an offer from the Buckeyes, as does the state’s No. 2 prospect, Dayton Belmont center Shawn Phillips. He’s the No. 39 national recruit.

College coaches can’t discuss specific recruits until they officially sign national letters-of-intent, but Holtmann did say the staff is aware of the rising talent level within the state in the coming years.

“That’s got to continue to be a priority for us,” Holtmann said of recruiting Ohio. “It’s really important. I’ve always said it doesn’t mean we’re going to get every elite player in the state. We’d love to, but that’s not necessarily realistic. I believe that we’ll get our fair share. In some cases we’ll determine who we feel strongly about being Buckeyes and pursue them and there might be some others that are really talented that we just decide not to pursue for whatever reason. We’re looking for Buckeyes.

“You’re always aware of the talent in your state, always, and we’ve kept close tabs on that in the past, since we got here but certainly in the past year looking at the two, three classes down the road, which are strong.”