With Jimmy Sotos and Meechie Johnson coming, Ohio State's Chris Holtmann breathing easier
When transfer guard Abel Porter was sidelined with what would ultimately become a career-ending diagnosis of a genetic heart condition, Chris Holtmann had a couple of immediate thoughts about his Ohio State men's basketball team.
First, obviously, was concern for Porter’s health. And then, once the Ohio State medical staff identified the problem and began to help him plan for a safe post-basketball life, Holtmann’s mind turned to his beleaguered backcourt.
Now, with the Buckeyes less than two weeks from the first allowable day of games (and still in the process of finalizing a schedule), Holtmann now has a roster with three true guards available and a fourth on the way. In a preseason with uncertainty and plenty of worry about the COVID-19 pandemic, the OSU backcourt is now one less thing to worry about.
“We felt really good about the experience that CJ (Walker) and Duane (Washington Jr.) was going to return and if you add an older guy like Abel we felt good about going into the season knowing we could also move some of our wings around as well,” Holtmann said. “I feel good about (our backcourt depth) now. I would’ve had some concerns with Abel going out had we not been able to find another primary ball-handler.”
Holtmann spoke with reporters Wednesday for the program’s first formal interviews since Oct. 2 and covered a wide range of topics. It provided him the first opportunity to address the two immediate backcourt additions to some degree: Bucknell transfer Jimmy Sotos and Garfield Heights High School graduate Meechie Johnson Jr., who announced Sunday his plans to graduate early, reclassify to the 2020 class and join the team in December.
Sotos will have the more pronounced impact. Last season, he started all 34 games for the Bison and averaged a career-high 11.5 points. The NCAA approved his second waiver for immediate eligibility last Friday.
“The thing he provides most significantly is shooting, ball-handling and passing right now,” Holtmann said. “He’s graded out as one of our best shooters. He’ll have an adjustment to the athleticism, the length, the speed that’s at this level, for sure, but we see him as being a guy that will play both off the ball and with the ball in his hands.”
Sotos averaged 8.1 points, 3.9 assists and 3.4 rebounds in 28.2 minutes in 100 career games at Bucknell. He has 77 career starts and has started all but one game during the past two seasons.
NCAA rules prohibited Holtmann from saying much about his 2021 recruiting class, which landed a signature from Convoy Crestview forward Kalen Etzler later in the day Wednesday and will officially add Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary guard Malaki Branham on Friday afternoon.
In general, though, expressed his excitement at bringing Johnson in this season — a step that has no immediate precedent in college basketball.
“Obviously not every high school kid or graduate transfer could graduate and do it, but if there was the right opportunity we wanted to make it happen,” Holtmann said. “We spent three or four days really diving in with our compliance about what direction could we really go with. Could we look at a graduate transfer? Could we look at a high school senior? It was a lot of research and digging.”
Now, Johnson is a member of the class of 2020 and preparing to play college basketball after missing his entire junior high school season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
“The biggest thing for us is we’re going to keep in mind his health,” Holtmann said. “Those decisions (to bring him in) were made in a long-term thinking in mind about what can prepare him for an increased role (in 2021-22). There’s going to be opportunities to help this team but his overall health will need to be fully evaluated.”