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Column: Today is a must-win game for Chris Holtmann, but not in the way you might think

With a top-five recruiting class, he’s not going anywhere, but that doesn’t mean another first round loss won’t have major implications.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

I think that we’ve made it pretty clear over the years that we here at Land-Grant Holy Land are big fans of Ohio State men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann. Speaking for just myself, I think that he is a very good coach, but equally importantly, I think that he is a great human being (please don’t make me regret putting that in print someday in the future, Coach).

Now, of course, I don’t think that being a great human being on its own should merit a coach’s continued employment. I do think that it matters to a not-insignificant degree, but that’s not what I’m here to argue with you about today. In fact, I don’t think that I’m here to argue with you at all, because, despite my genuine affection and appreciation for Holtmann, I think that things have become fairly clear for his tenure leading the men’s basketball program.

Today’s game against the No. 10 Loyola-Chicago is not a must-win for Holtmann to keep his job. He is bringing in the nation’s fifth-best recruiting after this season, and that alone warrants another year — or most likely two — at the helm for the Buckeyes, and given the transfer rate in men’s college basketball, if you don't understand why, I’m not sure that we have much else to discuss.

However, today’s game is still monumentally important for his tenure with the Buckeyes for other reasons. All season-long, Holtmann has been praising and thanking the fans that have shown up to the cavernous and ill-planned Schottenstein Center. He has credited them with providing support, motivation, and appreciation during some of the season’s most important moments. And while I think the Nuthouse is going to continue to do that no matter what, I am concerned about the rest of the Ohio State fanbase and how they would react should Holtmann’s Buckeyes get bounced by a double-digit seed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the second time in as many years.

Given what we’ve seen from a subsection of OSU fans on Twitter over the years, and especially this season, it’s safe to say that a certain percentage of Buckeye Nation is not exactly 100% behind Holtmann. Now, normally, I tend to dismiss the loudest and most negative of our Buckeye brethren as just a glass-half-empty vocal minority, but this feels different to me.

Rather than the calls to fire Holtmann coming from the same venomous accounts that I easily mute and move on from, it feels like the apprehension about his stewardship of the program has begun to take hold amongst the not-perpetually-mad-online portion of the OSU population. And that’s where a game like today’s can be concerning.

I believe that some of Holtmann’s NCAA Tournament disappointments can be chalked up to bad luck; be they injury, matchup, or COVID-related, and that very well might come into play today, depending on whether Zed Key and Kyle Young are able to contribute at the levels that OSU needs them to.

But be it an excuse or a reason, the problem is that blaming “bad luck” can only explain away so much. So, since we expect Key and Young to both be active for the game — thanks to reporting by The Columbus Dispatch’s Adam Jardy — if they play, even if not nearly 100%, I can’t see a certain percentage of OSU fans giving Holtmann yet another year of the benefit of the doubt. And unfortunately, I think that percentage is larger than anyone would like.

And while that won’t impact his job status, especially given Ohio State AD Gene Smith’s not-so-subtle defense of his coach on Twitter earlier this week, it very well might have an impact on his ability to be the best leader of the program.

Having a city like Columbus, and a fanbase like ours, behind you, is a big deal for a coach and their team. And while it is always dangerous to compare anything at Ohio State to the football program, even on a smaller scale for men’s basketball, we know the levels of fervor that Buckeye fans are capable of. If Holtmann loses a large swath of the fans due to another one-and-done tournament appearance, I think it could have multiple, significant impacts on the program.

You notice that I did not describe a potential loss to the Ramblers as an upset. That’s because DraftKings Sportsbook has the Ohio State-Loyola game as a pick ‘em. So, despite the Buckeyes being the higher seed, from the more dangerous conference, with one of the best players in the country, the oddsmakers think this game is a coin flip. Now, that surely has at least something to do with the uncertainty surrounding Key and Young, but I don’t think that this gambling distinction will assuage Buckeye fans’ feelings should a loss come to pass.

So, if a large number of fans further check out on the men’s basketball Buckeyes, how will that impact the vibe around the program? Will there be less of a buzz about Bruce Thornton, Felix Okpara, Roddy Gayle Jr., Brice Sensabaugh, and Bowen Hardman joining the team? Will that lead to them seeking greener pastures if their freshman campaigns don’t go according to plan?

If the MBB team loses a noticeable amount of fan support, will that hamper Holtmann’s ability to capitalize on his 2022 recruiting success? Will prospects be concerned that the coach in Columbus might not be there for the long haul if they commit?

Heck, does Holtmann get frustrated by the constant questioning from the fans (and trust me, if you’ve listened to his press conferences, it’s pretty clear that — while he won’t come straight out and say it — he hears it, and it bugs him) and decide to go find a program that might be more receptive to his leadership?

A fanbase’s loss of faith can be crippling for a coach in ways large and small. It eats away at the foundation of the program from both the outside and the inside. It can put an abrupt end to any momentum that the team has, it can cast doubt on everyone associated with the program, and — most damagingly — it can create ill-feelings all around.

Trust me, we do not want a 2022-23 season with “Should Chris Holtmann be fired?” as one of the major storylines, we don’t want to see the coach’s resentment boiling up during pressers, and we don’t want to see recruits distancing themselves from Ohio State because they can’t be certain if the coaches recruiting them will even be there for their freshman seasons.

Of course, in sports, winning is the greatest elixir of all. Win today against one of the most beloved — and widely picked — programs in recent tournament history, and it buys you some time. If you don’t, go into the offseason with questions from fans flying around from every direction and deal with the consequences that those questions bring along with them.

I like Chris Holtmann, I would like him to remain the coach at Ohio State for many years to come, so for that reason, today’s game is a must-win in my book.