From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about our Unreasonable Expectations. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our Unreasonable Expectations here.
Ohio State men’s basketball made history in 2023. That is, they went on the longest losing streak (9 games) of the Chris Holtmann era. By the time they showed signs of life, it was too little, too late, so March Madness was more like March Sadness in Columbus, with the Buckeyes missing the postseason for the first time since the 2015-2016 season.
So with that in mind, I am well aware that I deserve every ounce of dismissal this article might get, especially when you add in the fact that the Buckeyes’ postseason performance under Holtmann has left us wanting. In his six seasons as head coach, the Buckeyes have never made it past the round of 32, so if you immediately rolled your eyes upon reading this headline, you are valid and I understand.
But allow me to plead my case.
Many in Buckeye Nation were calling for Holtmann to be fired at the end of 2023. While I’ve gone on the record to say I strongly felt he deserved to return in 2024, he is skating on thin ice. If the Buckeyes don’t turn things around, and I’m talking a full 180, Holtmann will likely be out of a job come 2025. Surely, he’s aware of the stakes, both for the team and for him personally.
In large part, because 2023 was such a slog, it won’t be enough for Holtmann to simply have a winning season or make the postseason. The Buckeyes will need to advance deep into the tournament to prove Holtmann was able to turn this team around.
A Sweet Sixteen appearance would mostly silence critics, but an Elite Eight appearance would add an exclamation point. And Holtmann needs the exclamation point. In fact, it would be the farthest any Holtmann team ever advanced, and it’s the level of momentum he and Buckeye Nation need if he’s going to continue to have buy-in.
I know what you’re thinking — needing to advance in the tournament to keep your job and making it happen are two different things.
But when you couple that kind of motivating factor with the spark we saw at the end of last season, maybe a Sweet Sixteen berth isn’t so unreasonable. Then you add in next year’s recruiting class, and maybe that one extra win becomes a little more feasible too.
When the Buckeyes finally snapped that 9-game losing streak, it was as if an entirely new team took the court. The latter version had the technical skills, but beyond that, they played with heart (something that had been seemingly absent up to that point). The importance of intangibles like energy and heart cannot be understated in a sport like basketball — it’s fast-paced, every minute counts. We didn’t see those things until late in the season.
But when we did? Suddenly, we went from a team everyone had written off to a team that was fun to watch (because they were having fun themselves). Once they found a little bit of a spark, things for the Buckeyes caught fire, and they made an exciting run in the Conference Tournament that led a lot of fans to believe they could have done decently well in what ended up being a deeply chaotic Big Dance, had they simply found that spark sooner.
Of course, things change in the offseason, and it can take time to find your momentum. The Buckeyes don’t have that luxury next season. They’ll need to come out of the gates swinging, in the face of big changes.
For starters, our two leading scorers — Brice Sensabaugh and Justice Sueing — have declared for the NBA Draft, with Sensabaugh expected to go in the first round, leaving us with leadership roles to fill. We’ll need some guys to not just step up but to absolutely ascend to the next level as leaders of the team.
Look to sophomore Bruce Thornton to be one of them. After a solid freshman season individually, Thornton could realistically take the reins as a team leader, backed by Zed Key and Jamison Battle, who will be the most experienced player on the court, though he’ll be new to Columbus, having joined us through the transfer portal from Minnesota.
Battle’s experience coupled with Thornton’s talent and time in Columbus could set them up to be a dynamic duo next year.
It will be critical in a year when the team will be young. I’m not talking about one or two freshmen on the court. I’m talking “most of the starters are sophomores or freshmen.”
And while lack of experience can certainly hurt a team or lead to sloppy mistakes, it can also be an asset, depending on how you look at it. This was a Buckeye team that needed to hit the hard reset. And sometimes young players have a certain naivety — people say they can’t, but they don’t really know enough to pay attention to that yet — and that kind of blind confidence can really boost the energy.
In fact, last season, it was the inexperienced freshmen who acted as the glue. And for a team that needs a HARD reset after 2023, perhaps the inexperience will work in their favor. Holtmann will have to coach these players in a way that allows them to channel it collectively toward their goal, but I’m not writing them off just because they’re young, especially when you consider the strength of the incoming recruiting class.
The incoming Buckeyes are the sixth-best recruiting class in the country, and surely, a few of these guys have the ability to be college standouts. If the guys with the possibility to be leaders actually step up to fulfill that, the freshmen will be in good hands.
Columbus, I know it sounds wild, but I absolutely believe we could have a lightning-in-a-bottle situation on our hands next year. The team has a lot to prove, a coach’s job to protect, the talent to be great, the confidence of youths who feel invincible, and a handful of guys with exceptional leadership skills who can rein the young ones in.
If they start the season strong, pace themselves, and position themselves for a decent seed heading into March, they are absolutely capable of making it to the Elite Eight, especially if they can capitalize on energy.
Roll your eyes now, but I’ll say “I told you so” when these Buckeyes dance their way to the second weekend of the tournament.