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Column: Despite rough season, Ohio State shouldn’t write off Chris Holtmann just yet

In an ever-shifting college sports landscape, one rough season does not a bad coach make.

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Illinois v Ohio State Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The college basketball landscape is changing drastically, and we need coaches who can keep up if their programs are going to remain competitive.

This season, Chris Holtmann hasn’t been able to. But it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t get another shot as the men’s head coach at Ohio State.

Hot take, I know. Especially as the boys close out what was a disappointing season, to put it lightly (4-14 in conference, 12-17 overall, only March Sadness).

There are coaches who can adapt almost in real-time, changing their long-term strategy to fit the current landscape while anticipating what’s coming next. They seem like wizards transforming their team with ease. It’s a really extraordinary skill.

But there is another way of adapting that shouldn’t be written off just because it requires a little patience: Playing the long game. While patience is perhaps not the default setting for Buckeye fans, it would behoove us to practice some in the case of Holtmann. He seems to have the trust of his superiors, and despite an unnerving season, the prognosis for the future isn’t all bad.

As coaches learn to navigate the NIL (name, image, and likeness) landscape, along with the transfer portal, it’s going to take some programs a bit to find their footing. An IndyStar series on the NIL impact on college basketball found it is not only impacting politics between schools and conferences, but it’s having an enormous impact on locker room politics.

Some coaches say this is no different than managing players’ behavior in other ways, but when you suddenly present young people with the opportunity to make a lot of money really fast? Ultimately, it impacts egos, team dynamics, and recruiting.

Add to that the transfer portal. Regardless of your stance on the portal (I tend to be in favor of it, in the interest of full disclosure), there’s no question that the players’ ability to mobilize on a whim can cause any coach’s best-laid long-term plans to go awry. And there is a learning curve to getting the portal to work in your favor.

Like it or not, the landscape is chaotic. It’s a beast the NCAA created itself, but it’s chaos nonetheless.

And Holtmann deserves an opportunity to try the long-game approach to managing the chaos. OSU has an extremely talented group of freshmen, who, given a little more time to develop, could go on to be real leaders on the court.

In fact, Bruce Thornton has already established himself as such, being named captain in a midseason revote as a freshman. He leads the team in steals, but perhaps more importantly, he leads the team period. As in he is a true leader, something the Buckeyes seemed to be desperately lacking among players on the court this year.

Freshmen are also leading the team in points per game (forward Brice Sensabaugh at 16.5 ppg) and blocks (center Felix Okpara with 1.1).

While the Buckeyes are missing some critical pieces that would allow these freshmen to play at their full potential, I don’t think the coaching is one of those pieces. I think this is the result of a cataclysmic shifting of the ground under Holtmann’s feet, and unfortunately this season, the team got tripped up in the gap.

But Holtmann has last year’s No. 8 recruiting class in the nation, and next year’s incoming class ranks No. 6. Give him a moment to assess the damage and move the puzzle pieces. One rough season shouldn’t be the cause of a knee-jerk reaction, the results of which would likely do more harm than good to a program already reeling from instability.

Ye of little faith would do well to remember that in the time Holtmann has captained the Ohio State ship, he has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year (2018), climbed as high as No. 2 in the polls, faced seasons cut short by Covid-19, and was just the second head coach in OSU history to win more than 20 games in each of his first five seasons with the Buckeyes (the other being Thad Matta).

If Holtmann is fired at the end of this season, it will be a reactionary response that I think will lead to regret for the Buckeye powers that be and fans alike.

He has earned, with the stability he provided the program and the ways he filled Matta’s shoes at the outset, the opportunity to start fresh with the Buckeyes next year. Call this season a wash, but don’t wash your hands of Holtmann just yet. Let’s give him a little longer with the long game. We just might see it pay off.