The offseason in college basketball becomes more interesting every season. The reason being is the transfer portal, which at this point has turned into college basketball free agency without the contracts (sometimes).
Ohio State has been no exception to that rule, as players have left the program to pursue other paths and avenues that the portal now provides. This season, Musa Jallow and Ibrahima Diallo have put their names in the portal, Jallow as a graduate transfer landing at Charlotte.
With the transfers and the new landscape of college basketball, the question that people following certain programs tend to pose is a simple one. When players leave, is it indicative of a problem with the program, or is this just the new landscape in college basketball?
The answer is not as simple as the question. This season, over 1,300 players entered the transfer portal. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, over three dozen players from the Chicago area alone were in the portal. This rise in numbers is in part due to the free season of eligibility given to student-athletes by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic and players wanting to play that year elsewhere, but the numbers of transfers were going up well before the pandemic.
Let’s trace this back to Ohio State. Chris Holtmann is now entering his fifth season as the head of the Buckeyes men’s basketball program. Considering he took over a program that had missed the NCAA tournament two years in a row, most people would objectively agree that he has done a great job turning things around.
The Buckeyes went to the second round of the big dance in his first two seasons, were a lock to make the field in his third year before the tournament was canceled due to COVID, and I should not have to remind anyone of what happened this past March.
Not to mention that the Buckeyes have been ranked in the top 5 in the country at one point during the season in three of the four years during his tenure and that Holtmann is 87-43 as the head man in Columbus. That is winning almost 67% of games with normally a tough out-of-conference schedule and playing in the toughest conference in basketball, regardless of what people tried to argue in March. He is 201-128 for his career and has been coach of the year at least once at every stop he has made as a head coach (Gardner-Webb, Butler, Ohio State). That is not a fluke, that is sustained success.
The arguments against Holtmann are a high number of transfers and not yet winning in March. For the first one, transfers are a part of the landscape in today’s college basketball. Every single school is going through this and it will continue to happen. This is not something that you fix, it is something that you must adapt and flow with. You must adapt by going into the portal and getting guys to replace who you lose, which Holtmann has done wonderfully.
This year, Jamari Wheeler and Joey Brunk will fill two voids this Buckeyes team had last season with defense and a big body. The Buckeyes did not even have to leave the Big Ten to replenish the team this year. Plus, with the departure of Diallo, Holtmann and crew can add one more transfer or recruit if they choose.
It is not about how many guys you lose anymore, but how you replace those guys. Losing some guys in the portal is inevitable.
For the second argument, winning in March in college basketball is much more complicated than it may seem. For Holtmann, before this season, every loss he had in the tournament at Ohio State was to a higher seed and in his second season, they pulled off an upset over Iowa State.
Some of the greatest coaches of our generation have struggled in March. Bill Self has one title in 17 seasons. John Calipari has one title in 12 years at Kentucky and he is the 23rd winningest coach of all time. Tony Bennett made history with being the first coach of a No. 1 seed to loss to a No. 16 seed. This made people think he could not win in March. He proved them wrong the very next season.
Mark Few has been at Gonzaga for 22 years, has made the tournament every single season and has yet to win the big one. Dean Smith only had two championships when he retired and he is synonymous with college basketball success.
Holtmann has only really had three tournament opportunities thus far and the only year in which his team underachieved — from a seed standpoint — was this past year against Oral Roberts. I agree that Holtmann needs to advance past the first weekend of the tournament, but it has only been four seasons (three tournaments) and he took over a program that had not passed the first weekend since the 2012-13 season.
Chris Holtmann is the guy. I promise. All you have to do is sit back and watch the next 10-15 years of success that will come. Patience is a virtue.