Barring a miracle, Chris Holtmann’s first year as the Ohio State men’s basketball coach is all but guaranteed to be a rough one.
On Friday, the 45-year-old coach granted freshman point guard Braxton Beverly his release from the program, while also dismissing freshman forward Derek Funderburk for the usual, vague reason coaches often fall back on: “failure to meet team expectations.” The release and dismissal leave Ohio State with just eight scholarship players—two of them true freshmen—and only one point guard for the upcoming season. While fans may hold out hope for a brighter future considering Holtmann’s track record, the window for a shot at a successful 2018 campaign passed them by months ago.
The Buckeyes canned Thad Matta on June 5, shocking the college basketball crowd. The surprise of the firing did not stem from the fact Matta got the boot in the first place (being too miserable for even the NIT will do that), but rather from the timing of the move.
By waiting until June to oust Matta, the Buckeyes administration left Holtmann little-to-no chance of crafting a roster of his own for the 2018 season. Holtmann brought along his assistant coaches from Butler, as is custom, and even convinced incoming four-star recruit Kyle Young—initially committed to the Bulldogs—to jump ship. But Holtmann’s Butler connections are where the changes that will potentially have a positive effect on the Buckeyes’ 2017-18 campaign begin and end.
One of the most prominent issues for the Buckeyes (besides figuring out how this team will score) is their lack of depth at the point guard position. Besides junior C.J. Jackson (5.6 points and 2.9 assists in 2017), the Buckeyes don’t have anyone who has proven they can consistently bring the ball up the court and initiate an offense against Big Ten defenses. Holtmann has toyed with the idea of moving senior Jae’Sean Tate—the team’s leading scorer last season and the guy who injured his shoulder slapping the floor like a doofus—to a ball-handling role, but that solution is one borne of necessity rather than strategy. Past Tate, Holtmann’s backup point guard is a high school recruit who signed last week and might reclassify from the class of 2018 so that he can play next season.
Looking at the roster as a whole, having eight scholarship players (not including former walk-on Joey Lane) is not an automatic death knell. “Eight is enough” was the rallying cry of Duke’s 2015 title team after the Blue Devils lost Semi Ojeleye (the 2017 AAC player of the year) to transfer and Rasheed Sulaimon to dismissal. However, Ohio State has happened upon some extremely bare recruiting classes the past couple years under Matta. This was best highlighted by recruit Darius Bazley, who told the Columbus Dispatch in April that he de-committed from the program after evaluating Ohio State’s other commits—“I looked into the recruits they have coming into next year, they didn’t look too good for the future.”
Needless to say, Ohio State’s eight do not much resemble that Duke team’s eight, which included a trio of top-15 recruits, a veteran core, and two future NBA point guards. In terms of sheer offensive production, Tate is the only player that’s displayed the ability to go for double-digits on a nightly basis. Guard Kam Williams’s decision to return to school and forward Keita Bates-Diop’s recent return from a stress fracture in his left leg that caused him to miss the entirety of conference play last year are welcome signs, as both Williams and Bates-Diop averaged more than nine points last season and should see that bumped a bit this year. Still, this means the Buckeyes offense will largely rely on the production of a streaky, off-the-bench three-point shooter and two talented-but-recently-hurt players, meaning the margin for error, and injury, will be slim the entire season for the leading trio.
In the past, coaches have responded to shortened benches by dialing back the number of contact practices scheduled during the regular season. The issue with this method is that the Buckeyes will need to simultaneously develop and depend on a pair of freshmen who, in an ideal world, the team would spend more time developing than depending on. With the transfer pool sucked dry and the majority of good class of 2017 commits signed elsewhere, the Buckeyes will turn to Young and fellow rookie Kaleb Wesson to pick up any slack. Regardless of their actual readiness, Young and Wesson (who joins his older brother and fellow Buckeyes post player, Aaron Wesson, on the team) will be expected to provide relief minutes from the outset of the season.
Holtmann said recently that while he recognizes the Buckeyes will be short-handed this season, he would rather go into the 2018 season with the team he inherited and build out from there rather than “reach” for players simply to fill roster spots. This approach makes sense as long as Ohio State administrators and fans can clench their jaws and eat another season of NIT-or-worse results. By not adding players of questionable quality for the sake of padding out the back end of the roster, Holtmann keeps future spots open for players he actually wants to recruit come this fall and next spring. As Holtmann himself remarked:
“We certainly don’t want to compromise on them being what we feel like are Ohio State guys, and we don’t want to compromise on talent or ability,” Holtmann said. “That handicaps you in the future. Because of that, I don’t know that we’ll add another one.”
This season seems set up to be a trial by fire for both Holtmann and his young team, as his Ohio State employers practically forfeited any chance of a successful inaugural year by hiring him when they did. Given his resumé—four straight years with 20-plus wins at Gardner-Webb and Butler, plus a history of rapid player development as an assistant—Holtmann was the right hire at the wrong time. If Buckeyes fans can make it through this year, and if Holtmann can erase the sour taste of recent recruiting woes left by his predecessor, Ohio State might actually be worth watching come the 2019 season.