Five things we learned from Chris Holtmann's first offseason press conference
For an hour Wednesday morning, Ohio State men's basketball coach Chris Holtmann addressed a wide variety of topics. From the abrupt end to the season to expectations to a number of players and more, the first press conference of the 2021 offseason covered a lot of ground.
Decisions from E.J. Liddell and Duane Washington, as well as an announcement of a replacement for assistant coach Terry Johnson, won’t be coming for at least a few weeks. You can read all about that here.
Other than that, here are five more things we learned from Holtmann’s press conference.
1. Big things are expected from Zed Key
As a freshman, Key made his presence felt early with his enthusiasm, his natural scoring ability and his well-publicized “finger guns” celebrations. Near the midpoint of the season, Holtmann said that he kept looking at Key’s stat lines and wondered how he could get him more minutes. In the end, he averaged 5.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in only 11.7 minutes while appearing in all 31 games.
This year, Key will battle transfer Joey Brunk for the starting spot at center and be expected to progress during the offseason.
“I’m really excited about the step Zed can take for us moving forward,” Holtmann said. “His offseason, along with a couple of our young guards, is as critical to our team next year as anything.”
Key was the only scholarship player to play more than 11 minutes during the season and not attempt a three-pointer. Those days will come, Holtmann said, but that’s not the primary goal for Key’s offseason development.
“The biggest thing for him is playing longer, harder, conditioning, fitness, some of his balance,” Holtmann said. “He’s got to make free throws at a higher clip, and he will. Stepping out beyond the three-point line will be a part of his game eventually, for sure.”
Key, alongside Meechie Johnson Jr., will be part of Team USA’s U19 camp in June.
2. That Oral Roberts loss still stings
This probably isn’t much of a surprise, but Holtmann said moving past the first-round NCAA Tournament upset at the hands of the Golden Eagles remains a work in progress. It was the first time Holtmann has coached an NCAA Tournament team that failed to win a game, and it marked only the ninth time a No. 15 seed defeated a No. 2 seed.
Earning such a high seed, Ohio State’s best since 2013, is an achievement worth celebrating, Holtmann said. But separating the positives from the season from the bitter end is still a tall task.
“I’m going to have to find that balance,” Holtmann said. “We have to lean into the fact that while we had a really good Big Ten tournament and good regular season, this was our first year that we just did not perform well in the NCAA Tournament. We have to own that.
“The challenging thing for me has been teams you really like to coach and you know genuinely love and care for each other, the highs are really high and the lows are really low. Their emotions are really strong and I think this one still feels it and will continue to because the care they had for each other was real and genuine.”
3. Roles for Jamari Wheeler, Meechie Johnson and the backcourt are to be determined
The elephant in the room is the decision pending for Washington, a third-team all-Big Ten player a season ago who led the team in scoring at 16.4 points per game. But with the departure of CJ Walker to the professional level, the return of Jimmy Sotos from injury and the addition of transfer Jamari Wheeler from Penn State, the Buckeyes will have multiple faces in the mix in their backcourt next season.
What that will ultimately look like is too early to tell.
“Those are things you wait to figure out once you know what your roster’s gonna look like for sure,” Holtmann said. “You certainly need depth there.”
Creating better on-ball pressure and getting more defense from the guard positions is high on the list of priorities, which helped bring Wheeler to the team.
“I’m excited about Jamari and what he brings in terms of a guy that can defend the ball,” Holtmann said. “We’re losing that with CJ Walker. It’s an area that Duane has to improve in if he returns. Meechie can be good at guarding the ball, which is important for us. He’s got really good feet. Jimmy brings different strengths in terms of his positioning defensively.”
4. Recruiting is changing, but Ohio State will recruit out of high school
This is a big topic that will require more reporting in the coming weeks, but the growth of the NCAA’s transfer portal as well as the approval of the one-time transfer waiver for immediate eligibility will certainly impact how college coaches go about building rosters. Next year, the Buckeyes will welcome in two new freshmen in Malaki Branham and Kalen Etzler and have added Brunk and Wheeler via transfer.
Both guys fit immediate needs for the Buckeyes. Going forward, that will remain an avenue for roster additions, Holtmann said, but so too will be recruiting and signing players out of high school.
“I’ve had coaches tell me they’re going to recruit exclusively the portal,” Holtmann said. “High-major coaches. That’s not how we’re going to do it. I don’t look at it and say it’s right or wrong, that’s just a way of doing it. We’re always going to have a blend. We’re always going to rely on recruiting high school kids and helping develop them.”
5. Brunk, Wheeler recruited to fit needs
Neither of Ohio State’s two transfer additions are prolific scorers, but both address positions of concern for the Buckeyes.
“I understand (that) immediately fans look at points per game and say we should be taking this guy or that guy, but you’re trying to assemble a team,” Holtmann said. “I just felt like with Jamari he answered some questions with perimeter play, defense and leadership. Joey is a guy who has never played more than 20 minutes, but he performed well (most recently at Indiana) and was able to provide a big presence.”
Brunk’s frame will allow the Buckeyes to present a different type of matchup this season, regardless of whether Liddell returns.
“In our minds, we will not play as quote-unquote small as we did last year,” Holtmann said. “That provides more opportunities for Zed and for Joey as well.”
In four seasons spread across Butler and Indiana, Brunk averaged 5.6 points and 3.5 rebounds in 15.2 minutes per game. Wheeler is a two-time all-Big Ten defensive team honoree who has averaged 3.8 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.5 steals per game in four seasons with the Nittany Lions.