With the Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team set to tip off against Loyola-Chicago Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, it’s hard to feel optimistic about their chances to make a run. The Buckeyes tumbled from the AP Poll with an end of season skid that saw them lose four of their last five games.
It doesn’t help that Loyola-Chicago is a perennial Cinderella in the Big Dance and has Sister Jean on their side.
The game itself is a toss-up according to Vegas, with even odds and the over-under set at just 110. Though the Buckeyes showed at some points this season that offense is a thing they can produce, they very much limped toward the finish line in anemic fashion, scoring above 70 points in just one of their last five matchups and dropping their opening game in the Big Ten Tournament to Penn State.
With all that, it’s so, so easy to look at the bench and blame the man in the salmon suit for not getting the Ws late in the year when it counted the most, and wonder if, in the most severe of scenarios, Ohio State’s current head coach is the right person for the role.
In brief, it’s far too early to press the panic button on Chris Holtmann.
For starters, the reality remains that the Buckeyes’ issues in March began well before Holtmann came to town. Ohio State’s last conference tournament win came in 2013, and the last regular-season championship in 2012. The last Sweet Sixteen appearance was also in 2013, and we can’t forget when the Buckeyes made the Final Four in 2012.
Despite the frustration that’s come at the end of this season, we must admit that Holtmann has done a holistically great job at Ohio State. He’s put together teams that start the season strong and place well in conference play. He’s been a great recruiter, bringing in the top class in the Big Ten in 2022 and the No. 5 class in the nation. He’s had marquee wins against highly touted opponents (how could we forget that time Ohio State toppled top-ranked Duke just a few months ago?).
The criticism of Holtmann is fair. Unfortunately, even the best teams still have to find a way to win in March — something Holtmann hasn’t been able to do, in particular during his tenure at Ohio State. And even more unfortunately, the best seasons don’t seem to matter when they aren’t accompanied by these postseason wins.
Then again, the NCAA Tournament is made for upsets (dare we remind ourselves of No. 15 Oral Roberts beating the No. 2 Buckeyes?), and Ohio State is usually too good to be the one upsetting anyone in the early rounds. However, what Holtmann has been limited in is his ability to at least match those upsets with a string of wins. It seems his teams are always favored, yet tend to lose more often than not. At Ohio State, Holtmann has gone 2-3 in NCAA Tournament games.
Sadly for Holtmann, we can’t chalk these losses up to age or inexperience anymore. He turned 50 in November and is now in his third stint as a head coach. He’s proven his ability to win at each of these programs, having won conference coach of the year honors respectively at Gardner Webb (2013), Butler (2017) and Ohio State (2018). While at Butler, he also won national coach of the year accolades when he led the Bulldogs to a four-seed in the NCAA Tournament and a Sweet Sixteen appearance.
Sadly for Ohio State fans, there’ve been no Sweet Sixteens in Holtmann’s tenure in Columbus. There’ve also been no Big Ten Tournament championships. As a fan base that expects success, it’s easy to be impatient.
Already, Holtmann is in his fifth season at the helm at Ohio State (it seems like just yesterday when the young hotshot from Butler replaced Thad Matta). It’s the longest tenure Holtmann has had as head coach, having spent three seasons each with Gardner Webb and Butler.
Five seasons, though, does not a career make. John Beilein, the former great Michigan coach, would need five seasons to earn a regular-season title with the Wolverines. He would also lead Michigan to the NCAA Tournament in just three of those first five seasons (including a first-round exit in 2012). It would take until 2017 — 10 seasons in at Michigan — for Beilein to win a Big Ten Tournament.
Of course, it only took six years for Beilein to get the Wolverines to NCAA runners-up in 2013.
Greg Gard of Wisconsin is another helpful example. Gard won the Big Ten regular season in his fifth year at the helm of the Badgers in 2020 and only made the NCAA Tournament two of his first three years. Granted, those two appearances led to Sweet Sixteen bids, so take it with a grain of salt.
Finally, because he’s top of mind currently, we must bring up Iowa’s Fran McCaffery, who missed the Big Dance in each of his first three seasons, got knocked out in the First Four in his fourth and won two total Tournament games in the next two seasons. He’s never won a regular-season title and never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Yet, now, he has Iowa sitting pretty, with the Hawkeyes having won the Big Ten Tournament and earning a five-seed in the Midwest Region.
Back to Holtmann. In that vein, we must remember the Big Ten, perhaps more so than the Big South or Big East, is a tough conference when it comes to basketball. The past few years have shown how much these teams beat up on one another when it comes to conference play, but how much the selection committee respects them: Once again, this year’s tournament field features nine teams from the Big Ten — the most from any conference.
Even so, annual conference titles and Final Four berths evade even most of the blueblood programs year in and year out, and Ohio State, for all its general success over its program history, is not the cream of the Big Ten crop with historical success like Michigan State or recent prominence like Wisconsin or Michigan.
Holtmann was brought in to change that perception and get Ohio State back to its relative glory days. The Buckeyes’ runs in the late-2000s up through 2013 are still fresh enough in the minds of fans to frame their expectations.
It’s not all bad news, though. Holtmann did lead Ohio State to a runner-up finish in the Big Ten Tournament last year despite wrapping the regular season at No. 5 in the standings. Additionally, it’s impossible to know what would have happened in 2020 had the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments played out, but Ohio State did win four of their last five that season heading into the canceled conference tournament. The Buckeyes had all the momentum to make a run.
Further, Holtmann has done something that is harder than it looks: He’s actually led teams that have made the tournament (or, in the case of the 2019-20 season, would have made it) in each of his five seasons in Columbus. That stat should be telling: Before Holtmann’s arrival before the 2017-18 season, the Buckeyes had missed the tournament for two straight years. As much as we might try to forget, Ohio State fans do remember the bitter disappointment of making the NIT in 2016 and no postseason in 2017 in Thad Matta’s final seasons as the former coach struggled to close out his tenure.
Under Holtmann, it’s surely not a comfort to know that Ohio State has made the tournament consistently without being able to get anywhere. It would be like making the Rose Bowl every year and never winning. On the hardcourt, Holtmann has controlled what he can control up to this point: He’s recruited well and played the regular season well enough to put teams in a position to win in the postseason.
The pressure might be on to take his team to the next level, but sustainable growth takes time, and we must, at times, sit back and trust the process.