We here at Land-Grant Holy Land have mostly been a pretty pro-Chris Holtmann bunch since the coach came to Columbus in 2018 to succeed the legendary Thad Matta. There have been a lot of fairly enjoyable highs under Holt, including teams that have far exceeded preseason expectations, but when his program has ebbed the other way, boy has it ebbed to depths that nobody would wish on their worst enemy.
Not only has the annual January slump become a recurring theme for Holtmann’s program, but then there are the painful postseason defeats to the likes of Oral Roberts. In fairness, while the Buckeyes have yet to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament under Holtmann, aside from losing to Mouth Bob in 2021, their exits were against teams that were at least their equals, and in most cases, their betters: No. 8 Gonzaga in 2018, No. 11 Houston in 2019, No. 8 Villanova in 2022.
Those facts notwithstanding, it is fair to ask if the men’s basketball program has reached its ceiling under Holtmann. While the analytics (for some reason) still like the Buckeyes this season, there is no arguing that they have essentially been hot garbage for over a month, going 1-7 since narrowly losing to then-No. 1 Purdue on Jan. 5.
However, now that the calendar has flipped to February, the Buckeyes have the opportunity to turn the page on an absolutely embarrassing and horrific month. And, despite all logic, they have a chance to play themselves back into the NCAA Tournament.
But, I think there is something more important at stake over the next four weeks as OSU wraps up its regular season on March 4 against Michigan State. I think that Chris Holtmann is essentially coaching for his job.
I think that Gene Smith and the Ohio State administration would like to keep Holtmann on as coach if he gives them any reason to down the stretch. They currently have the No. 6 recruiting class in the country, featuring three top-50 players, and still have a (very unlikely in my estimation) shot at landing the No. 33 player in the country, Bronnie James. If you fire Holtmann, there is every reason to assume that most of those players will decide to play elsewhere. Of course, some or all of them might stay, but there’s no real way of knowing that when you pull the plug on Holtmann’s tenure, unless you announce his replacement immediately.
So, if the Buckeyes show a pulse over the next month, I think Holtmann is safe; whether he should be or not is a discussion for another day. But, Ohio State can’t lose six or seven of its remaining nine regular season games. If they do, that will put them at 14-16 or 13-17 and so far from the NCAA bubble that even an unsuccessful run to the finals of the Big Ten Tournament couldn’t send them dancing.
But, if they go 5-4, or 6-3, the rest of the way, they would be 16-14 or 17-13 with a chance to not only reach the 20-win plateau, but make the tournament as well. Currently, the Buckeyes have the third-worst odds to win the Big Ten regular season crown at +50,000 according to DraftKings Sportsbook, but even that feels generous. In terms of cutting down the nets in Houston this April, they are tied with six other also-ran teams for the 30th-best odds at +10,000.
Look, we all know that the Buckeyes aren’t going to win the Big Ten and they aren’t winning the NCAA Tournament, but just something approaching competency would be a step in the right direction for this team. I have always felt that Holtmann’s squads have been well-coached and after the January doldrums have played their best ball down the stretch — despite a rash of disappointing injuries over the years.
That’s what Holtmann needs more than anything else to save his job. He has to prove that he is the man to right the ship. He has to prove that he can get his team and his athletes to play far better than they did in January. He has to prove that he has not lost his locker room.
If Holt can do those things, I think he gets one more shot at the Schott. The problem is, I’m no longer sure that he can actually do those things, but I’m certainly hoping he can. I like Holtmann — both as a person and as a coach. I think he is the type of person built to lead a basketball program at a blue-blood football school. He is level-headed, (theoretically) a talent-developer, and seems like a genuinely good person. Ohio State could do a lot worse.
However, at some point, he has to get over the hump. Coming into the new year, I really thought this team had all of the makings of a squad capable of breaking the Sweet 16 drought, but those fantasies are so long gone that making it past the first two rounds of the NIT would be an accomplishment at this point.
I don’t think that the Buckeyes have to make the tournament to save Holtmann’s job, but they have to show signs of life, something they haven’t done much of since the calendar turned to 2023.