One week in, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann watching for continued growth

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch
Ohio State men's basketball coach Chris Holtmann speaks at Big Ten media day at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on October 7, 2021.

INDIANAPOLIS – Six practices does not a full season make. Thursday afternoon at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, Ohio State men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann was quick to point that out to those assembled at Big Ten media day.

And yet, those six practices provide a starting point for an Ohio State team that despite having a number of unanswered questions was picked fourth in the preseason media poll conducted by The Dispatch and The Athletic. In most cases, final answers on players won’t be known for a few weeks or, in the case of at least one, possibly months.

“Right now I’m not ready to say what our rotation’s going to look like,” Holtmann said. “It’s still very much a competitive challenge every day. Some guys have maybe established themselves through the first few practices, but we’ll know more here in the next month and will want to keep it wide open for the first part of the season and not make any real determinations yet. There are certainly some guys that have earned some things, but there’s a lot of positions still up for grabs.”

Many of those questions reside in the backcourt where, although the Buckeyes boast a number of players with significant collegiate experience, they will be replacing their two primary contributors from a season ago. With Duane Washington and CJ Walker both playing professionally, fifth-year transfers Jamari Wheeler (Penn State) and Cedric Russell (Louisiana) are battling alongside second-year player Meechie Johnson, fifth-year Bucknell transfer Jimmy Sotos and first-year player Malaki Branham, among others.

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In his first public comments since the start of the preseason, Holtmann said the revamped backcourt has shown some expected early issues.

“I think there’s more things happening early in the season that would signify a younger, maybe more inexperienced backcourt than what we’ve had in the past,” the coach said. “We’re turning the ball over a little bit more. There will be some things we’ll have to work through that you work through when you have a new and inexperienced backcourt.”

By the end of the year, Holtmann said, the backcourt “has a potential to be good” in part because Wheeler has helped settle some things. A two-time member of the Big Ten’s all-defense team, Wheeler has caused a fair share of those early practice turnovers and is a likely candidate to be an opening-day starter.

Russell is still acclimating to Ohio State after four years in the Sun Belt Conference.

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“The size, length and speed of this level is just a little bit different than what he consistently saw but he’s a really good player and he’s gonna be fine,” Holtmann said. “We’ll see his best basketball probably mid-year on. I could really see that with him.”

A similar timeframe is in place for Seth Towns, a sixth-year forward who underwent back surgery in September. He’s expected to return in mid-December after having missed more than two seasons with a knee injury. He’s the only Ohio State player not currently practicing, Holtmann said, but the expectation is that Buckeyes fans will see him at full strength before the end of the year.

“It’s not like this is the first time he’s gone through an injury,” Holtmann said. “It’s a separate injury than his knee. I think he’ll handle it with the kind of maturity that he’s handled the previous one and he’s going to come out on the other end of it really well.”

Johnson will assume a much more significant role than what he took on last season, when he graduated high school early and joined the team in December. The Garfield Heights, Ohio, native will see time both at the point and off the ball, and Holtmann said he’ll be asked to both make plays and score for the Buckeyes this season after primarily being a shooter in limited reserve action last year.

That’s come with some growing pains as he’s endeavored to push the ball up the court with Wheeler hounding him. He’s not been alone in that: Branham, too, has had “some really good days” already but also some where he’s struggled, Holtmann said.

At this point of the calendar, patience is a virtue.

“I think we’ve got some answers there, but it’s gonna take some time,” Holtmann said.