“I think you’ll see this, and you can hold me to it, but I think if I’m going to err, I’m going to err on the side of it being more challenging than not challenging in the non-conference.”
-Ohio State men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann, via Bill Landis, Cleveland.com
One of Chris Holtmann’s key tasks at Ohio State is upping attendance at the Schottenstein Center, which has been plummeting in recent years for men’s basketball. And one of the key ways to improve in that area--beyond simply winning games--is improving the Buckeyes’ non-conference schedule to something more exciting than back-to-backs against Western Carolina and Jackson State.
Last season, Ohio State ranked 111th in non-conference strength of schedule, playing just three teams in the KenPom top-100. Holtmann’s Butler team, meanwhile, was 12th nationally. The Bulldogs scheduled highly challenging opponents, including Arizona and Cincinnati, and played a total of eight teams in the top-100. Butler happened to beat all eight of them, which earned them a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but simply scheduling and competing boosts a team’s tournament resume, especially compared to schools that have a weak non-conference schedule.
Ohio State does have some built-in marquee matchups, notably in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and the CBS Sports Classic. Next season, the Buckeyes are scheduled to face Clemson in the former, and UNC in the latter. The squad is also heading to the PK80 Invitational over Thanksgiving, with a guaranteed game against Gonzaga, and a second-round matchup versus Stanford or Florida.
While the schedule is set for this season, Holtmann hopes to begin making tweaks heading into the following season in order to further boost the non-conference schedule. Ohio State will still play some “buy games,” with smaller schools coming to Columbus, but they should be fewer in number moving forward. Ohio State could also start to participate in more early-season tournaments. In Holtmann’s three seasons with the Bulldogs, Butler played tournaments consecutively in Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and Las Vegas. For Ohio State, it would be a chance to boost their tournament resume early, and allow some time to recover before the start of conference play.
“He’s about to own nearly every record in Ohio State history, and that probably matters to some degree.”
-Tim Shoemaker, Eleven Warriors
Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett could very well be the Big Ten East’s top quarterback heading into the fall. Entering his senior season, Barrett already holds most major passing records in Columbus. Those he does not own will likely fall this season. The undisputed starter, Barrett has had an offseason under the tutelage of new co-offensive coordinators Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day. The Buckeyes have also brought out a slew of lengthy receivers who can finally provide the downfield threat that Barrett has so lacked over the last two seasons. But even with his struggles, Barrett still managed more than 2,500 yards through the air for 24 touchdowns with just seven picks in the 2016 season. He also added 845 yards on the ground to go with nine rushing touchdowns. This season, with improvements around him, Barrett’s dual-threat ability only gets greater.
Behind Barrett, Penn State’s Trace McSorley poses a worthy adversary. McSorley, individually, had a better season than Barrett last year, racking up more than 3,600 passing yards and 29 touchdowns with eight interceptions. Still, his rushing ability is not nearly on Barrett’s level, gaining just 365 yards on the ground, though with seven touchdowns. Of course, with Saquon Barkley in the backfield, the conference’s best running back, the duo are a formidable combination for defenses to battle.
Michigan’s Wilton Speight trails McSorley. Similar to Barrett, Speight threw for 2,538 yards last season with 18 scores and seven picks in his first year as a starter. Even so, the Wolverines have lost a significant amount of offensive firepower, including tight end Jake Butt and receivers Amarah Darboh and Jehu Chesson. Behind Speight, Indiana’s Richard Lagow is entering his second year as a starter. Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke, Maryland’s Caleb Henderson and Rutgers’ Kyle Bolin round out the east’s quarterback rankings.
“Anyone who says there won’t be times of self-doubt, they’re lying to you. It’s about believing in the process and the plan we have in place, but eventually we’re all going to have to prove that that plan is successful.”
-Ohio State men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann, via Adam Jardy, The Columbus Dispatch
Chris Holtmann’s career path took him on a much higher trajectory than expected when he was announced as the head men’s basketball coach at Ohio State earlier this month. Previously, Holtmann had had six total years of head coaching experience in his time at Butler and, previously, Gardner-Webb of the Big South. The move to a major program in the Big Ten is undoubtedly the biggest so far of his career.
Still, Ohio State has historically not shied away from coaches with limited experience at the helm. Thad Matta, hired when he was just 37 years old, had coached just four years at Xavier, though his final year with the Musketeers earned an Elite Eight appearance. Holtmann has found similar success in his early years as a head coach. He guided the Bulldogs to the NCAA Tournament in each of his three seasons, including a Sweet 16 appearance this year. Still, Holtman is 45 years old--eight years older than Matta was when he took over at Ohio State.
Holtmann has also been granted an eight-year contract with the Buckeyes. It shows confidence in the new coach as he will have time to revamp the recruiting process, enabling Ohio State to once again get top basketball talent from its own state. Holtmann and his assembly of assistant coaches, all joining from Butler, have already proven up to the task. Butler’s 2015 class ranked ninth nationally, and the 2016 class improved to fifth.
Still, the rebuilding process will not happen overnight in Columbus, and Holtmann has adopted a much more practical approach, taking things one day at a time on the road to improvement. The Buckeyes still have five scholarship spots open for next season, and filling them--and the rest of the roster--will represent an early test for the new coach and his staff.
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