Ohio State's Chris Holtmann expects to return for Wisconsin game

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

Monday’s edition of the Chris Holtmann show was unlike any other.

Sunday, Ohio State hosted Northwestern with assistant coach Jake Diebler serving as acting head coach while Holtmann watched the game from home due to COVID-19. It marked the first time Holtmann had ever missed a game as a coach or assistant coach, and Diebler oversaw a skeleton crew also missing assistant Ryan Pedon.

Both missed the game due to health and safety protocols, but Holtmann said they figure to be back for the game with the Badgers.

“I’m feeling fine,” Holtmann said. “Both Ryan and I expect to be back on Thursday. We should be good to go. We’ve cleared that with our medical people.”

As a result, Holtmann did the show remotely at the beginning and end while Diebler filled in during the middle. The two Buckeyes coaches talked about E.J. Liddell’s career night, the 95-87 win against the Wildcats, last Thursday’s road loss to Indiana and much more. The show was broadcast as the week’s latest Associated Press top 25 poll was released, and Ohio State has dropped three spots to No. 16.

If you couldn’t listen, here’s what you missed.

Chris Holtmann had to turn the broadcast sound off

The Ohio State men’s basketball program’s official Twitter page posted a video after the Northwestern game that showed Holtmann watching the game. In it, the coach is pacing, clapping at the TV and encouraging his players against an otherwise silent backdrop.

Prior to the game, Holtmann said he was watching some of the pregame show but had to turn the sound off.

“I watched a little bit of the pregame broadcast with the sound on before I had to turn it off,” he said. “I was getting angry like an angry parent, talking about how dead-legged E.J. and some of our guys were. I was screaming at the TV, ‘He was out for two weeks. Give the kid a break.’ Now, we need to play better than we did the last 10 minutes of our last road game and we need to defend better than we did last night for sure but his legs started to look like he did the Wisconsin game before the break.

“I had the volume down. It made me all in all too nervous.”

Holtmann said the experience was a challenge.

“I was an absolute mess,” he said. “I told my wife, ‘I love you, but we are not watching this game together. There’s no chance. I am watching it in a secluded room. I don’t want to hear sound. I want to pace and cheer on our guys and our staff,’ and they did a heck of a job.”

Jake Diebler settles into head coaching role

Diebler said he tried to normalize the day as much as possible for the players in Holtmann’s absence.

“Certainly helps to have a veteran group,” he said. “Our captains deserve more credit than anybody else. Our veterans were great last night. Total Team 123 effort. What we talked about as a staff when we were getting to go out on the floor right before the game, I brought everybody together and said let’s be positive, let’s be poised, we’ve got enough change as it is so let’s keep this simple.”

The night before the game, Diebler said he had his veterans talk to the younger players about their experiences playing the Wildcats last season and warn them that it was going to be a grind. Leading into the game, Diebler said he had a list of questions that he peppered Holtmann with to try and prepare for the experience.

“Substitutions is something you’re constantly thinking about,” Diebler said. “Rotations, flow of the game, do we have enough legs for the end of the game, when to call timeout, all that stuff was unique and different. We were able to collaborate on a lot of that as a staff but there were times you had to make some quick decisions.”

Despite his confidence in his fellow coaches, Holtmann said it was a challenge being forced to watch the game.

“I think we have an elite staff,” Holtmann said. “The addition of Tony (Skinn) has been outstanding. Our support staff is outstanding and Jake and Tony and (Mike) Netti and Pedon and I spent a lot of time on the phone putting some final touches on the game plan. Those guys, they play a vital role. They’ve been instrumental in our success and certainly instrumental in our recruiting success as well.”

E.J. Liddell returning to form

After the 22-day layoff in between games, Liddell broke through in a big way with 17 points in the first five minutes en route to a 34-point outburst against the Wildcats. Like many of the Buckeyes, returning to action and rebuilding fitness has been the top priority for Liddell.

That led to an atypical Friday practice, the day after the loss to the Hoosiers.

“I think he’s getting there,” Holtmann said. “He’s not there yet. One of the things we did after Indiana is meet as a staff. We really tried to look at that game and the Nebraska game as a whole and say where do you feel like we’re most deficient and conditioning was at the top of the list. We did something we typically don’t do after a road game getting in late and we practiced with pace up and down pretty hard for about an hour. It was a lot of running, not just sprints but game running. I feel good about what that allowed us to do in terms of the game (Sunday).”

Those early buckets helped set a tone for the rest of the Buckeyes.

“We went in and drew up E.J. Liddell scoring 17 points in five minutes,” Diebler said, jokingly. “No, E.J. playing the way he did, we knew that he was going to break through this (stretch). We knew we were going to have to rely on him with coach being out even more so than usual, and he delivered in a big way. His start helped ease everybody for the rest of the game.”

Jamari Wheeler has all-around impactful game

E.J. Liddell and Malaki Branham took the headlines, but Jamari Wheeler put together a balanced stat line with 8 points, six assists, five steals and a game-high eight rebounds while playing 34:20.

“Even though he hasn’t been in our program for less than a year, his experience at this level at this league, when he hit the transfer portal we were all sitting there in Indianapolis and we were like, ‘Yes,’ ” Diebler said. “We called him right away. Ball pressure was an area we knew we had to improve in and got what I believe is the best on-ball defender in the country. He knows who he is. There’s so much value in that. He’s a joy to coach.”

Mike Netti enjoys expanded offensive role

As special assistant to the head coach, Mike Netti has been around the program and the game planning process since Holtmann came to Ohio State. Sunday, he was making offensive calls and helping direct the Buckeyes at that end of the court.

“Really, the ability to deliver calling the game was different,” he said. “Usually on the bench I can give suggestions to coach and to Pedon. Yesterday it was, make some decisionw. What’s the feel? What’s the flow? Our players embraced it. I let them know thank you, you let me coach the game.

“Those guys are completely selfless. They trust the process. They trust us coaches. I think the culture helps us win games, and the guys we bring into the culture makes the thing move.”

Ohio State adds non-conference game

The Buckeyes have scheduled a game to replace one of the three they lost due to their COVID pause. Ohio State will host an as-yet unnamed opponent Jan. 18 at 7 p.m. in a game to be televised on the Big Ten Network.

“It’s great for the program; it’s great for our fans,” Netti said. “I think our guys too that have been in this pause, even some guys getting healthier, to play another game, it’s needed. We’re excited about it.”

It’s unlikely to see the Buckeyes add another game to replace the second home game that was lost unless there is a Big Ten cancellation, Holtmann said.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy