Chris Holtmann hits free throws, talks San Diego State matchup in Maui

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

LAHAINA, Hawai’i – Chris Holtmann’s first trip to the Rainbow State hasn’t been made without a little trepidation.

For the first time in 19 years, the Ohio State men’s basketball team is participating in the Maui Invitational, one of the most prestigious Thanksgiving-week events in the sport. It’s the type of trip that Holtmann, upon his arrival in 2017, said he wanted to get on the team’s schedule in the upcoming seasons. Now it’s here and with the Buckeyes facing an eight-team field in which five teams are ranked among the top 25 in most recent Associated Press poll, Holtmann could be forgiven for wanting to grab the ceremonial surfboard at Sunday morning’s press conference and sail off to the island of Lanai looming in the distance.

“It’s a tremendous field,” Holtmann said. “I think maybe the best field of any tournament of this caliber that I’ve been a part of around Thanksgiving. It is a phenomenal field. Terrific teams and coaches. Different styles. I think it’s going to be a really, really entertaining tournament to watch if you’re a fan of college basketball.”

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Ohio State opens the tournament Monday with No. 17 San Diego State. Seated at a press conference moderated by ESPN’s Dan Shulman featuring the coaches for all eight teams in the field, both Holtmann and Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher stated their belief that they will have a deeper understanding of their teams when they depart the island later this week.

Chris Holtmann, other coaches have free-throw shooting competition before Maui Invitational

First, though, there were photos to take, sunglasses and shirts to be fitted for and free throws to be attempted. After each coach answered a pair of questions from Shulman and posed for group photos, they were paired with a local kid for a charity free-throw shooting competition on a portable hoop erected in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency hotel. Each team was given six free-throw attempts – three by the kid and three by the coach.

Holtmann made two of his three shots, and his combined team score of four tied him with Louisville’s Kenny Payne and Cincinnati’s Wes Miller for runner-up honors. Creighton’s Craig McDermott, whose partner hit all three tries, won with five combined makes. Miller was the only coach to make all three attempts while Texas Tech’s Mark Adams, who said he’s due to undergo shoulder surgery shortly, went for the old-fashioned underhand approach and banked in two of his shots.

It was a light-hearted atmosphere for a group of coaches flanked by palm trees and bathed in sunshine who are now preparing to learn lessons about their teams.

“This week, win or lose, you learn a lot about your team,” McDermott said.

That will especially be true for the Buckeyes, who are 3-0 but yet to play a team ranked in the top 300 nationally according to KenPom.com. During the press conference, Holtmann told onlookers that his coaches have to remind him before each game to limit how often he plays freshmen Roddy Gayle, Felix Okpara, Brice Sensabaugh and Bruce Thornton together.

“When you have as many new players as we have, you’re very curious to see what we’re going to face,” Holtmann said. “In an event like this, we’re playing an older team right now. This early in the season, you learn a lot.”

Since arriving in Maui on Friday, Holtmann said the team has had time to enjoy the beach and the environment but has not done any significant excursions.

Third-year wing Gene Brown III, who has missed the first three games while in concussion protocol, has made the trip with his teammates but will not be available against the Aztecs as he remains in the protocol. It’s unclear when he could return for the Buckeyes.

The last time Ohio State was here, it took a 22-point loss to San Diego State in the first round before beating Central Michigan and Villanova to return home with a 2-1 record. Holtmann said he wanted to get Maui on the schedule but that he has had a concern with playing in the event.

Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann participates in a press conference to preview the Maui Invitational at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Lahaina, Hawai'i, on Nov. 20, 2022.

“This is a premier event,” he said. “Playing in this, for me as a coach I at least wanted to be in it one time. It’s hard to sometimes get into this event. I had no hesitation outside of the jet lag and the effect it has on your team when you get back.”

That’s a problem for future Ohio State to deal with. Today, the focus was on preparing for San Diego State – and maybe hitting some free throws.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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