Rob Oller: With Holtmann, Buckeyes got better end of the coach-for-hire deal

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State guard Duane Washington Jr. talks with coach Chris Holtmann near the end of the Buckeyes' win Saturday.

Ohio State got the right coach. And in Chris Holtmann it also got the better coach. Sorry, Indiana, you picked wrong. Holtmann has Archie Miller beat every which way but lose. Miller wins that one with a 1-6 record against Holtmann’s Buckeyes. 

We will review that lopsided ledger in a moment, but first: No. 4 Ohio State 78, Indiana 59. The Buckeyes balled their fists on Saturday afternoon in Value City Arena and pummeled the Hoosiers both early and late. In between, they let things slip before scooching back into a comfortable lead by being a half-step quicker and whole lot tougher, a combination that usually amounts to more wins. To wit: the Buckeyes are 17-4 to IU’s 11-9.

The only game detail necessary to describe how things went down — to explain how Ohio State went on a 19-0 run to lead by 16 in the first half, only to see Indiana draw to within five in the second half before OSU stepped back on the gas — can be summarized by Buckeyes freshman forward Zed Key.

“We had to play harder (the second half) because they were punking us around the court,” Key said.

If Holtmann hates anything it is his guys getting punked around. Especially because he’s used to doing the punking, at least where Indiana is concerned. Not that he would ever explain it that way. Growing up in basketball-crazy Kentucky, Holtmann understands some programs deserve total respect, which explains why he downplayed his 6-1 record against IU since arriving in Columbus. 

A couple of the wins were super close, almost lucky, he said. You can count on the Hoosiers being brutal to score against, he stressed. So forth and so on. What else is he supposed to say, that Indiana blew it five years ago by looking to Dayton instead of Butler? Well, of course it did.

Let’s review. In mid-March 2017, Indiana fired Tom Crean and plucked Miller from Dayton to coach the Crimson and White. Dayton fans rued their fate. Ohio State fans shook their heads, thinking their next big coaching catch just slipped the hook.

Miller not only had some Ohio State pedigree, having coached under Buckeyes coach Thad Matta from 2007-2009, but also one-upped his former boss when the Flyers stunned OSU in a 2014 NCAA Tournament first-round game that made national headlines, including one in particular — “The” University of Dayton — that was good for a laugh outside Columbus. After that, Miller’s name moved to the top of the list to replace Matta, whenever that would happen. Three seasons later “that” happened, but Miller was already at IU.

About 55 miles north of IU’s Assembly Hall, meanwhile, Holtmann was finishing up a 25-9 season at Butler in his third and ultimately final season at the Indianapolis school. In other words, he was available when IU fired Crean. But got Miller got the nod; fortunately for Ohio State, as it turns out.

About three months later, after a coaching search that lasted less than a week, Ohio State athletic director hired Holtmann. Kudos to Smith, who saw something in Holtmann that many Buckeyes fans, and some in the Columbus media — ahem — either could not see or were not paying enough attention to make a sound judgment.

ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas summarizes what sets Holtmann apart. Hint: it was the same thing that made Matta so successful, until his balky back precluded him from coaching the way he wanted).

“He represents the positive evolution of coaching,” Bilas said. “In the old days, when I played (at Duke), most coaches were my way or the highway, and we were shocked when a player took the highway. Coaches were quick to be demeaning. There’s a difference between demeaning and demanding. Really, as a coach what you try to do is help these guys achieve what they want to achieve. You can tell about Chris that it’s not about him. The players are not there for him. He’s there for them.”

To be fair, Miller may well be similar to Holtmann in that respect. It’s more that when comparing overall records – Miller is 66-52 (.559) at IU with no NCAA Tournament appearances; Holtmann is 83-38 (.686) at OSU with two NCAA appearances – it becomes clear which program got the better end of the deal.

A former Dayton player from way back in the day remains shocked that Miller has not enjoyed more success at Indiana.

“It looks like they’re not competing and he doesn’t have the same buy-in he had at Dayton,” the former Flyer said. 

Contrast that to the Buckeyes, who are all-in under Holtmann. 

Fate can be frenetic. Miller heads to Indiana, where it has been a struggle. Holtmann comes to Ohio State and keeps winning. Things timed up right for one program and not the other. One thing for sure: the Buckeyes aren’t willing to trade.