I think it’s fair to say that most college basketball programs would love to replicate the 21st-century success of Villanova. I’m not breaking news here. Since 2001, the Wildcats have won 520 games. They have eight Big East regular-season championships, five Big East tournament championships, and two NCAA national titles — all since 2006. And over the last nine seasons, they lost double-digit games just once. The man largely responsible for their success is/was Jay Wright. By any measure of greatness, Wright should be regarded as one of the all-timers. His recent induction (2021) into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Game is evidence that most “basketball people” agree.
But Wright did simply walk into a ready-made situation like (some) other coaches do. For example: Duke’s Jon Scheyer is taking over the most prestigious program in the sport – as a first-time coach – at the age of 34. And North Carolina’s Hubert Davis made a championship run in his first season — with Roy Williams’ roster. I would argue that those men have a leg up in their future endeavors. Wright did not enjoy the same luxury back in 2001... Settle down, I know that both Scheyer and Davis were long-time assistants and very instrumental to their predecessors’ success. I am a huge Tar Heels fan, and I’ve rooted for Davis as both player and coach... I am simply pointing out another one of Wright’s many achievements. He propelled a solid program to the ranks of the elite, while building it the right way, and maintaining a high level of success until he decided to hang up the well-tailored suit.
Part of becoming an elite program and/or coach is winning in March, and that is another thing that set Villanova and Wright apart from the pretenders. Watered-down conference championships are great, and Final Four appearances are fun to talk about, but “almost” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Wright made it to the mountain top multiple times. One could say he “only” won two NCAA Championships, but that’s more than former peers such as Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo, and John Calipari can lay claim to. He is one of only 16 coaches (ever) to win more than one D1 men’s title. And he did all of this by recruiting the right players and developing his team, which seems to be a bit of a lost art in today’s world of college basketball.
Under Wright, Villanova largely avoided controversy. This is due, in part, to his ability to attract and retain high-character players. When there were missteps along the way, the coach took care of business. He once suspended 12 players (at the same time, in 2003) for making unauthorized phone calls. There were whispers of a few players pocketing a few dollars from agents or boosters in years past, but never anything that tied remotely to Wright.
Once in the program, most players were eager craft their all-around game — as opposed to searching for the fastest route to an NBA paycheck. They knew that an additional year or two under the tutelage of Wright could pay greater dividends in the future. This is not to say he lacked the ability to recruit high-end talent. Villanova was reeling in 4-stars on a regular basis. But Wright only signed 11 5-star recruits during his entire career, and only one of those players has gone on to enjoy sustained NBA success (Jalen Brunson). Instead, the Wildcats’ now-former coach focused on willing learners and team-first guys. When the team wins, each individual wins.
And Wright’s best individual players have excelled at the next level. Early Nova draftees under Wright included Kyle Lowry, Randy Foye, and Dante Cunningham — all of whom played at least 12 NBA seasons (more, and counting for Lowry). Recent Wildcats include Brunson, Mikal Bridges, and Saddiq Bey — up-and-comers or borderline stars for their current NBA teams. The volume of Nova players making it into the league might not be comparable to that of Duke or Kentucky, but Wright definitely knew how to develop talent, while also dominating the Big East and winning NCAA Tournament games.
So, what does all of this have to do with Ohio State and/or Chris Holtmann? Did I just heap 600 words of praise on a retired Big East coach for fun? Well, not exactly. Holtmann spent three years coaching against Wright while the former was at Butler. And Prior to the two meeting up in the second round of this year’s NCAA Tournament, Holtmann was effusive in praise of the Villanova leader. He clearly respects the heck out of his former league rival... So while I’m not sure if Wright is a mentor – or anything more than an acquaintance – of Holtmann’s, I would say that if the current Buckeye coach were to try and emulate the career of one recently-retired coach, it should be that of his former Big East foe.
I’m sure Chris Holtmann would love to win five national titles, coach on a court named after him, and have a documentary made about his life and/or last season.... It’s just not in the cards. We live in a different era — with AAU, NIL money, player mobility, you name it. Dynasties are a thing of the past. But coaches can still impact lives, find success on the court (or field, ice, whatever), and stick around for a really long time... if they win, and do it the right way. The way Jay Wright did it. He did not re-invent the wheel. He just did his job better than most of his peers. His blueprint was not exclusive to Villanova, and it is one that I think Holtmann already gravitates toward using.
Here are the basics:
Don’t “sell your soul” — Run your program the right way, and don’t let winning become more important than coaching and developing players.
Recruit good basketball players who are equally good off the court — Kyle Young and E.J. Liddell types are always good to have on the roster.
Find players who want to use college as a means to improve, not a personal showcase — I place these individuals into something I like to call the Ben Simmons category.
Build a college team, not an AAU team — Nothing against AAU, but those teams acquire talent. Good college teams acquire pieces that fit together.
Peak in March — Columbus, we have a problem.
While Holtmann has done seemingly everything else right, he has not been successful during the most important stretch of the season. The Buckeyes have won 20 games in each of his first four seasons, but a total of just three in the NCAA Tournament. This is despite, oddly enough, performing pretty damn well in neutral-site games and notching some big victories over non-conference opponents. The month of March is the hole in Holtmann’s game — much like my inability to go left.
Twenty wins per season only gets you so far with fans. March means everything. And winning when it mattered most was something that Wright excelled at... but it took time. He barely had a .500 record after three seasons at Villanova, and the team made zero NCAA appearances. Not comparing apples to apples here, but Ohio State was not in a much better position than Nova was (in 2001) when Holtmann took over in 2017. The two coaches were also at different stages of their career when they took over the respective gigs, but there are at least some parallels. Holtmann just has a much shorter leash, at least according to some fans. And we are absolutely part of the problem!
I’m including myself when I say that it seems like we expect Sweet 16’s on a regular basis. Imagine if Jay Wright had been driven out of the Philadelphia area after three seasons. Villanova made a Sweet 16 and Elite Eight appearance in his next two. And then they won a billion games after that! Chris Holtmann has had four postseason opportunities in Columbus — AKA one more than three. I’m not saying we should be happy about March missteps, but we could certainly do a hell of a lot worse than 20 wins on a yearly basis.
Holtmann needs to win tournament games. He knows that. And he’s doing what he can to make it happen. Ohio State has a top-5 recruiting class coming in (which sort of goes against my argument), and the transfer rumors are swirling. My point being, the man brings in talent — the right talent. Guys you want on your team. Now he needs to make a run with said team, because another quiet exit in March could spell... something. But we should at least appreciate the program he’s trying to build, because the man who ended OSU’s most recent season used a similar blueprint to find massive success.