Chris Holtmann talks COVID-19 return for Ohio State and more on radio show

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch
Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Chris Holtmann talks to forward Kyle Young (25) as he prepares to enter the game during the second half of the NCAA men's basketball game against the Towson Tigers at Value City Arena in Columbus on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021.

The holiday season has been anything but kind to the Ohio State men’s basketball program.

After a Dec. 11 win against Wisconsin moved the Buckeyes to 8-2 overall and 2-0 in Big Ten play, Ohio State had a week to rest and prepare for a showdown with Kentucky as part of the CBSSports Classic in Las Vegas. Instead, multiple positive COVID-19 tests within the program resulted in the cancellation of the game and sending the Buckeyes into a stretch that has now seen them lose three games due to the virus and the process of returning to game action.

In addition to the game against the Wildcats, Ohio State had to cancel a Dec. 21 game against Tennessee-Martin and, now, a Dec. 28 game against New Orleans.

Against that backdrop, coach Chris Holtmann held his weekly radio show Monday to discuss the state of the program and the optimism that Sunday’s game at Nebraska will take place. If you couldn’t listen, here are the highlights.

Ohio State returned from COVID-19 break with limited practice

The last team practice for Ohio State took place Dec. 15. After going through the COVID-19 pause and a holiday break, the Buckeyes returned to campus Sunday and held a practice.

Sort of. They only had five available players, one of whom is ineligible this season.

“Guys are slowly returning from the protocols that are in place,” Holtmann said. “While we were hopeful that we could play on the 28th, it’s just that was probably a little too optimistic on our part, on my part. We would’ve had a few more guys that could potentially practice today (Monday) but some of that is limited in what they can do.”

That was what led to the decision to cancel the game, not further positive COVID tests.

“The ones that test positive are encouraged not to do anything for their 10-day quarantine period,” Holtmann said. “They’re not allowed to elevate their heart rate past a certain point. Then they have a procedure once they get the heart testing done where it’s a return to play, but that takes some time too. It’s not like you’re jumping in that first day. There’s a progression to it.”

Chris Holtmann outlines Ohio State's return-to-play protocols

There are multiple steps that have to take place before an Ohio State player can resume full-on action following a COVID-19 positive test.

“Most of the (Big Ten) schools are continuing to have myocarditis testing after the 10-day period,” Holtmann said. “They’re still doing that even for asymptomatic people. Certainly there could be arguments for asymptomatic athletes playing. The reality is probably when you look at it because we’ve not tested as much as last year, probably we played against asymptomatic positive players.

“If they test positive, there is a 10-day quarantine where they’re encouraged not to do anything, followed by myocarditis testing and a return-to-play progression that used to be seven days. We are making good progress. Guys are returning. They’ll be returning this week. All signs point towards … I think having this shutdown probably allows us to have some consistency moving forward with being able to play.”

Ohio State and New Orleans tried to find another way to make the game happen

New Orleans has also dealt with COVID, last playing Dec. 11 in a game with only seven players and one coach available. The Privateers arrived in Columbus on Sunday, practiced from 7-9 p.m. and were looking forward to playing the game.

Once the Buckeyes realized it was unlikely they would be able to play, the two programs began to discuss their options for rescheduling. The Harlem Globetrotters will be at Value City Arena on Wednesday, and New Orleans has a home game Friday and would not want to play a road game Thursday night.

There could be more rescheduling efforts in the coming weeks for the Buckeyes.

“We’ll have great flexibility within the league, or maybe you go outside the league and find an opponent and schedule on the fly,” Holtmann said. “That’s still kind of open-ended. There will have to be some flexibility. It sounds like there’s going to be more infection for programs that haven’t bene hit. January could be a month with additional disruptions. I hope not. We could have some consistency going forward.”

Buckeyes trying to stay mentally sharp after layoff

With this much time off, Holtmann said the focus on getting guys mentally ready to play at the level they were enjoying prior to the shutdown is a challenge.

“We need to get back to practicing with more than four or five guys,” he said. “When you can do that, we have enough depth where when we do have the numbers we should be able to have some good, challenging, competitive practices. As much as possible, if we can have a good week of practice as these guys return and build into leaving Saturday for Nebraska, it gives you a chance to keep your guys as sharp as possible.”

Justice Sueing, Seth Towns both making progress in injury returns

Graduate senior Seth Towns (back surgery) and fifth-year senior Justice Sueing (abdominal) are both expected to return in the coming weeks. If he would not return this season, Sueing would have the option to return for a sixth season, Holtmann said.

“I would expect both of those guys back this season,” he said. “They’re both older college players so would they want to stay another year in college I think is the question. Both guys might consider going into their professional life. Certainly both guys would have the option to. Seth has the option regardless, but some of that’s depending on his body.

“We’ve not really had that conversation because I do expect Justice will return here at some point, probably here in January.”

Big Ten meeting this week, could revisit forfeit rules

As part of a push to get as many college athletes vaccinated during the offseason, the Big Ten developed a policy that called for teams unable to play due to positive COVID tests would have to forfeit the game. Now, with the Omicron variant and fully vaccinated teams losing games due to breakthrough positive tests, that policy could be revisited as league play resumes this weekend.

So could the plans for returning to play, but Holtmann made it seem like that would be less likely.

“The league office is going to meet (Tuesday) to discuss all these things including the forfeiture rule that was put in place before this new strain,” he said. “The CDC has looked at the 10-day quarantine period going down, but they have not made changes to that. I’m sure universities and the states will follow the CDC guidelines, but right now it’s a 10-day quarantine here followed by a return-to-play progression that could last anyways from five to seven days.”

Brice Sensabaugh, 2022 Ohio State signee, draws praise

Holtmann said his five-man 2022 recruiting class has had limited disruptions due to COVID-19 and that he’s gotten to get out and see a few of them during the pause.

“They’ve all had really good years,” he said. “Bruce (Thornton), I just saw him at the City of Palms Tournament. He’s had a really good year. Brice (Sensabaugh) has had a phenomenal year in Florida. Roddy (Gayle)’s really been playing well. Felix (Okpara) has really played well. Obviously it’s a special class. Bowen (Hardman)’s been a little injured. They’ve been able to play the bulk of their seasons so far.”

Buckeyes men's basketball:Ohio State lands commitment from four-star 2022 forward Brice Sensabaugh

Holtmann, along with assistant coaches Jake Diebler and Ryan Pedon, also went to St. Mary’s, Ohio, on Dec. 23 to see four-star 2023 recruit Austin Parks.

“It was good to be able to get out,” Holtmann said. “When you have a pause like this, it’s not like I’m spending four days Christmas shopping.”

Keita Bates-Diop has 30-point effort for San Antonio

The Big Ten player of the year during Holtmann’s first season at Ohio State, Keita Bates-Diop had 30 points in a Dec. 23 road win against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Now in his second season with the Spurs, Bates-Diop is the latest Buckeye carving out a name for himself in the NBA. Holtmann said he saw that game and that he met with Bates-Diop late last season.

“I talked to their general manager and their former general manager,” Holtmann said. “They talked about it was an important year for Keita. He had to potentially get another contract. They talked about his progress. The one thing he’s got to continue to grow in is his shooting. They made an investment in him in the offseason. I believe that Keita’s going to continue to grow and make that investment the Spurs made in him pay off.”