Ohio State men's basketball embracing the joy of playing despite pandemic

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State men's basketball coach Chris Holtmann has been reminding his players that they are fortunate to have the opportunity to play this season.

Ohio State has published a video on social media from the immediate aftermath of what appears to have been a grueling men's basketball practice session.

Taken at some point around the middle of a preseason camp marked by monotony amid a global health crisis, it focuses in on coach Chris Holtmann addressing his players. They are spread out and wearing disposable face masks while Holtmann, wearing a black face mask, gives them a directive.

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“Don’t ever take this for granted,” Holtmann told the Buckeyes after what had been their first simulated game. “This is a blessing to do, and I know each one of you feel that way.”

Equal parts mantra, mission statement and belief, it’s what Ohio State and the rest of college basketball must embrace while attempting to put together a season that they hope culminates with a complete NCAA Tournament held in one city.

Every day, coaches and players are one positive COVID-19 test or contact trace away from having individual or team quarantines imposed and stretches of the season rendered meaningless.

Leading into Wednesday afternoon’s season opener against Illinois State, the Redbirds were to be subjected to testing upon Tuesday’s arrival on campus. If all were negative, they would be tested again Wednesday morning, after which another full round of negative tests would mean the two teams could actually play each other. Enjoying success this season will involve strict off-court discipline that still might not be enough to prevent a COVID outbreak from shutting a team down for weeks at a time.

Already, there have been mental hurdles to address. Holtmann learned shortly before a practice that families wouldn’t be allowed to attend games for a 28-day period starting Nov. 20, and he spoke with the team about it both that day and the next because it was an impactful revelation to his players.

Yet, while Holtmann has repeatedly said he plans to schedule an NCAA-maximum 27 games but doesn’t expect to get to play them all, there’s more than worry, anxiety and sanitation wipes at the ready when the Buckeyes take the court.

There’s hope. And joy. And, as Holtmann said, the opportunity to play the game that they love.

“Oh, it’s amazing,” junior Justin Ahrens told The Dispatch. “We’ve played some open gyms and stuff over the summer, but you had to be careful where you were going because of the COVID restrictions. When we started practicing and playing five-on-five, it’s amazing.”

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The Buckeyes will have an experienced team comprising players who are largely new to one another. Of the 12 scholarship players on the roster to open the season, six did not play a minute for Ohio State last season.

But nine of the 12 are in at least their third year of college basketball.

The mix of unfamiliarity and experience may be why when Holtmann was asked about his concern about his defense, he started by saying, “It’s real.” Or when asked if was anxious about his lack of guard depth, he said, “I’m anxious to see a lot of things.”

But with all of the unknown comes the opportunity to compete, to learn some answers and to feel a semblance of normalcy for the first time since the sport was abruptly shut down in March.

“The first couple weeks (of the fall) when we weren’t allowed to play with each other, it was definitely different. But now that we’re back on the court and we’re practicing and really going hard every day, it’s a good feeling,” said California transfer Justice Sueing, who will be making his Ohio State debut.

“For a lot of guys, especially cutting it off this last season when we were looking to make a big push, it meant a lot to them (to play) and they want to keep working to get back to where we were at.”

That has been evident, Sueing said, even when the Buckeyes have been limited to only six or seven players on the court at a time. When the whistle blows, it’s time to play. And from that point until the final horn, thoughts of the virus, the empty stands and everything else missing from the season disappear.

It’s time to play, and that is not lost on Ohio State.

“We get to do this,” Holtmann said. “We don’t have to do this. We get to come in and be an athlete and get better, and if it’s only six of us, it’s only six of us. Let’s find a way to maximize the day in front of us.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

No. 23 Ohio State vs. Illinois State