With Ohio State hoops annually 'in the hunt,' Gene Smith praises Chris Holtmann's tenure
Four years ago next month, Gene Smith had to make a significant hire. With the Ohio State men’s basketball program floundering, the director of athletics fired coach Thad Matta and began a frenzied search that lasted one week.
To restore the Buckeyes to the luster they had enjoyed particularly during Matta’s first decade on the job, he zeroed in on Butler coach Chris Holtmann. Four years in, the Buckeyes are relevant again nationally and in the hunt for what has proven to be an elusive title.
It’s where Smith said the Ohio State program should be annually.
“This is a tough league, but I really believe that our ultimate objective is to be in the hunt and periodically win it,” Smith said. “To me, that’s not unrealistic for our men’s basketball program. There’s years for whatever reasons you’re not going to win it. A team might better than you or injuries or whatever it is, but we’ve got to be in the hunt.”
In a basketball-centric interview with The Dispatch, Smith said he feels Holtmann is “doing a great job” and has positioned the program for greater success in the coming years.
“We’re building a foundation that’s even stronger for the future,” Smith said. “I look at it realistically and I think he’s put the tools in place for us to have that chance to get the trophy. I’m not concerned at all about it. He’s an excellent coach.”
Holtmann inherited an Ohio State roster that would soon be down to six scholarship players and gutted by the disappearance of a five-man recruiting class that should’ve been entering its third season with the program. The Buckeyes were picked to finish 11th in the unofficial preseason media poll conducted jointly by The Dispatch and The Athletic and would go on to finish second and win their first-round NCAA Tournament game after having missed March Madness for the two prior seasons.
After losing Big Ten player of the year Keita Bates-Diop and senior Jae’Sean Tate, Ohio State was picked eighth in the media poll the following year but would again earn an at-large NCAA Tournament bid and win its first-round game. The 2019-20 team proved to be Holtmann’s most balanced to date, finishing among the top 20 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, but it would not get a shot at the postseason as the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out both the Big Ten and NCAA Tournament.
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The Buckeyes climbed as high as No. 4 in the Associated Press poll during the 2020-21 season and win three games in the conference tournament before losing to Illinois in overtime of the title game. That added up to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where the Buckeyes were upset in the first round by No. 15 seed Oral Roberts, 75-72, in overtime.
In four years, Holtmann is 87-44 (.664) overall and 46-32 (.590) in Big Ten play. His teams have finished tied for second, tied for eighth, tied for fifth and alone in fifth, respectively, in the league standings. He was Big Ten coach of the year in his first season with the Buckeyes
“While I think we’ve certainly established a level of success and competitiveness nationally, there’s a national relevancy that has been reached, we have not reached by any stretch the peak years of Thad’s incredible run or coach (Jim) O’Brien’s couple years there or the run in the 60s,” Holtmann said in April. “I acknowledge we’ve got work to do, but I could not feel any better about the overall health of our program and yet I recognize we have opportunities and steps in front of us.”
Along the way, Holtmann has had to adapt to a changing landscape across the sport with the advent of the transfer portal, the NCAA’s decision to allow one-time transfers without penalty and the corresponding roster-building responsibilities.
This year, Ohio State lost only two players to the transfer portal, both of them role players.
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“I feel good about where our program is,” Smith said. “We both know that we want to perform better. We want to win championships. We understand that, and that’s what we strive for. I think we’ve got a good foundation to make that happen.”
When he left Butler, Holtmann signed an eight-year contract that pays him roughly $3 million annually. June will mark the midpoint of the deal, after which the buyout that would release him from the contract drops significantly. A buyout this offseason would have cost more than $10 million, a figure that will be less than $1 million after June 10. Holtmann’s name surfaced as a rumored candidate for multiple high-profile job openings this offseason, most notably at Indiana and North Carolina, a reality that figures to be common going forward under the current agreement.
Neither side has pushed significantly to revisit Holtmann’s contract, especially as the athletic department endeavored to cut costs during the pandemic, but Smith said it’s a topic that will be addressed next year.
“That’s a 2022 conversation,” Smith said. “I really believe that he’s just done such an excellent job, he and I have talked about it, and that’s a 2022 conversation. I feel good about it.”
The next step is some hardware. Smith said he’s not worried about the time elapsed since the last Big Ten regular season title (2011-12), conference tournament title multi-win NCAA Tournament appearance (both in 2012-13).
After watching this year’s run to the conference tournament title game, which included three wins in as many days after a four-game losing streak to end the regular season, Smith said the culture of the program showed in how the Buckeyes battled through injuries and fatigue just to get there.
“I think that’s the natural progression,” he said of winning a title. “I felt for them: they gave everything. That’s culture. They wanted it. They could taste it. I think the culture wants it. (Holtmann) wants it. I think at some point it’ll happen.