Chris Holtmann's job shouldn't be in jeopardy after Ohio State loss to Villanova | Rob Oller

Rob Oller
The Columbus Dispatch

PITTSBURGH — The vocal gathering of Ohio State fans inside PPG Paints Arena watching their team play Villanova grew quiet after Sunday’s 71-61 loss to the Wildcats. But much of Buckeye Nation just got louder.

The uproar is because the Buckeyes got bounced from the NCAA Tournament before reaching the Sweet 16. Again.

Ohio State knows how to crack the NCAA Tournament but can’t make an omelet once it gets there. The four consecutive trips to March Madness — five if you credit OSU for making the 2020 tournament that was canceled by COVID-19 — deserve a pat on the back. Only 11 other teams have similarly made the past four. 

That’s good.

But 11 of those 12 teams advanced past the second round at least once over that stretch. The lone exception? Ohio State.

Not so good. 

Villanova's Caleb Daniels shoots against Ohio State's Malaki Branham on Sunday.

Keep going? Seven of those 11 schools reached the Final Four at least once over the past three tournaments. Most of them are “basketball schools,” including Villanova, Gonzaga and Kansas. Some are at least as strong at basketball as football, including Michigan State and Houston.

And then there is Michigan, which just reached its fifth consecutive Sweet 16 and would have played No. 7 Ohio State Thursday in San Antonio if the Buckeyes had upset No. 2 Villanova. 

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Woulda, coulda … but shoulda? That is the million-dollar question. Or multimillion, if you’re one to equate coaching salaries with NCAA success.

Should Ohio State be advancing deeper into March Madness? Absolutely. Do the Buckeyes belong in the same category as Kansas, Duke and Arizona? Absolutely not. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count how many times I’ve written that football factories such as Ohio State — toss Alabama, Clemson and Georgia in there if you want — do not produce Grade-A basketball products. At least not consistently. They just don’t. 

Villanova's Eric Dixon shoots over Ohio State's E.J. Liddell on Sunday.

And yet … Ohio State can be better. Holtmann’s three immediate predecessors — Thad Matta, Jim O’Brien and Randy Ayers — each had at least one Sweet 16 appearance by this point in their tenures. All three also had at least one Big Ten title. Holtmann has neither.

Does that mean his job is in jeopardy? Not even close. It’s actually more likely he receives a contract extension from OSU athletic director Gene Smith than a job security warning. Why? Because those four/five consecutive NCAA berths show Holtmann knows how to make the dance with a variety of different roster configurations. Plus, it’s not like tournament disappointment is tied all to him. The inability to advance out of the second round goes back to 2013, four seasons before Holtmann arrived.

And yet … fans don’t want their team stuck in neutral. They either want an all-time winner, so they can count on consistent trips to the Elite Eight and Final Four, or they want a total loser who swings and misses so often they feel no guilt in calling for his head.

Ohio State's E.J. Liddell shoots against Villanova's Caleb Daniels on Sunday.

Holtmann is much closer to John Wooden (UCLA) than John Candy ("Cool Runnings"), but boy oh boy could he use guards who penetrate and score. A top-notch point guard also would help. 

"You can't close out games with your interior guys being your primary playmakers. It just can't happen," Holtmann said after the loss, referring to the need for stronger guard play, especially in late-game situations. "You have to have that to win in the last four minutes, and that's priority No. 1.

"We've got continue to grow that within our roster and obviously with our recruiting class. We have some guys who have to get better in that area. And will."

Villanova has those guards. The Buckeyes need them. The Wildcats (28-7) made hay Sunday with a backcourt that backed down Ohio State’s smaller and less physical guards into the paint. It seemed every time the Buckeyes cut the deficit to single digits in the second half — OSU got to within 60-58 with 5:39 left — the Wildcats answered with a bucket by 6-foot-3 guard Collin Gillespie (20 points). 

Simply put, teams need strong guard play to advance deeper into March. 

Villanova's Justin Moore shoots against Ohio State's Kyle Young on Sunday.

“The ball is in their hands so much, and it dictates so much of the game in general,” Holtmann said, explaining why guards become especially important during the NCAA tournament.

Ohio State (20-12) was hurt all year by the absence of 6-7 guard Justice Sueing, who played the first two games before an abdominal injury ended his season. He likely would have been a consistent scoring threat. Instead, opponents chose to back off certain players so they could double up on E.J. Liddell (17 points) and Malaki Branham (23 points.)

Help arrives next season with the No. 5-ranked recruiting class, including 6-4 shooting guard Roddy Gayle Jr. (ranked No. 4 nationally at his position by 247sports), 6-1 point guard Bruce Thornton (No. 8), 6-11 center Felix Okpara (No. 11) and 6-6 forward Brice Sensabaugh (No. 16).

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Of course, that only raises expectations and puts more pressure on Holtmann, especially considering Liddell and possibly Branham are off to the NBA.But pressure comes with the job. Especially in March.

"Gotta keep getting here, gotta keep growing," Holtmann said of trying to break through to the Sweet 16 or beyond. "Listen, when we got here a few years ago with a different program (Butler), you keep getting here, you get here enough, you get here consistently, and it will happen.

"We performed pretty well in this tournament in three of (four of) them. We just haven't been able to push through to that second round. I believe in what we're doing and I'm more than confident it's going to happen."

Until then, the noise will just keep getting louder.


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