The Buckeyes have lost 11 of their past 12 games and with yesterday's blowout home loss to Michigan State it appears as if the team has not only lost games but also the will to continue to compete in the Big Ten. Pressure from both the media and fans has come pouring in since the onset of this poor play in January leaving many questions around Chris Holtman and his staff. The question is what is the root of the problems on the hardwood in Columbus and what can be done to fix what is happening on Lane Avenue.
Let us first begin with some disclaimers. Holtman had to replace two assistants coming into this season, including his right hand man since his Butler days, Ryan Pedon, who left the program to go run the Illinois State Redbirds down in Normal. Pedon was the final member of Holtman's initial staff in Columbus from 2017-18 and one of his best recruiters leading the way on the likes of EJ Lidell, Dwayne Washington, Malaki Branham amongst others. Losing a coach of Pedon's echelon is certainly a major blow for the program, however, replacing high level assistants is part of the job.
The next big disclaimer is that the plan all along was for Malaki Branham to be the center piece of this team, as a second year guard who would be developing into a top ten NBA Draft pick. Unfortunately for Holtman and the 2022-23 Buckeyes, Branham played so well his freshman year that he was picked in the first round of this past years' NBA Draft. This has been an issue that Holtman has run into consistently throughout his career at Ohio State, players thought to be multi year building blocks for the program departing campus earlier than expected leaving the roster for the upcoming season with major holes. Included on that list outside of Branham are the likes of Dwayne Washington (NBA), Kaleb Wesson (Pro), DJ Carton (transfer), and Seth Towns (medical). All players that were thought to be major pieces for multiple years when they entered the program all leaving at least one year prior to what was thought to be their prospective ceiling.
Those disclaimers, particularly the second one, is truly a microcosm of the program under Holtman as a whole. Holtman has made it clear since his arrival on campus that he would not be competing for 5 star, one and done type prospects the way that his predecessor Thad Matta did. There is nothing wrong with this approach, as many coaches across the college basketball lexicon have parlayed this approach into final fours and championships. The issue is if you are going to use this approach you have to hold onto guys and develop them. Something Holtman has struggled with.
The thing that has been difficult for Holtman is that he has struggled with this mostly because players have surprised in positive ways and thus left prior to them being the best college basketball players for the program. This is largely due to the offense Holtman runs. None of Keita Bates Diop, Dwayne Washington, nor Malaki Branham were considered to be NBA prospects prior to the seasons they ended up declaring. However, with the offense Holtman employs, all these players were able to showcase the ability to create and make high level contested mid range jump shots at a consistent enough basis that it became evident to scouts this would be a translatable NBA skill. Unfortunately the offense showcased these skill sets in a fashion that was not conducive to the level of team success that you would correlate to having NBA players on your roster, as Holtman is still yet to reach the second weekend of the tournament. This is because the rest of the roster that Holtman had crafted around these stars was either a year of development or a strong recruiting class away from being ready to compete on a national scale.
For example, last years team had the two cornerstone stars necessary to make a run in March, but lacked the role players and true third guy in order to push them over the top. Something Washington could have given them. Fast forward to this year and a strong recruiting class has injected the team with the role players and building blocks last years lacked, however, since Branham left a year earlier than expected they lack the heliocentric star they need to compete. Without a second year Branham at the helm, the likes of Brice Sensabaugh and Justice Sueing have been asked to create the contested mid range jumpers that got Branham, Diop, and others drafted, yet they are not making them at the same clip as their predecessors leading to this teams downfall.
I think despite the calls from the media and fanbase to move on from Holtman, he deserves another year in Columbus. Matt Painter, one of the best coaches in college basketball, had a similar down period in his 8th and 9th seasons in West Lafayette, going from making 6 straight NCAA tournaments to missing 2 in a row, including a last place Big Ten finish in 2013-14. Painter responded by making 7 straight tournaments since then (2020 tournament cancelled due to Covid-19). The only difference is that Painter had made two Sweet 16s prior to bottoming out in his 8th and 9th seasons, and has made two more plus an elite 8 in the years since. These deeper tournament runs afforded Painter the ability to miss the big dance for back to back seasons, something Holtman almost surely will not be provided. However, I think being a post season team every year of his tenure in the capital city affords him another year if he wants it and does not take the Notre Dame job as has been rumored.
If Holtman does come back, which again I think he should, he will have to make a decision on where to move the program. If he wants to continue to run this offense that clearly cannot compete at a high level without NBA talent he is going to need to begin playing in the big leagues when it comes to the recruiting game. He, and his staff, have done an excellent job identifying talent in the 4 and 3 star range that are overlooked by the blue bloods and surprise early on in their careers. The problem is, as mentioned prior, if they are going to surprise that early they are going to need to be able to carry a team in the way that Matta 5 star recruits and top picks Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Jared Sullinger, and D'Angelo Russell have done in the past. If Holtman does not want to venture into those waters and compete with the likes of Kentucky, Duke, and the other blue bloods in both high school and portal recruiting, then he needs to alter his offense. He would need to institute a more motion based offense that features far more weak-side action, and off ball movement in order to create easier shot attempts than the current diet of contested mid range jump shots that the teams feeds upon.
Whichever way Coach Holtman chooses to go will decide how long he remains in Columbus and how those teams compete going forward. The bottomline is that the program needs some changes and a shot in the arm, and if Holtman does not want to institute those, I would imagine that Gene Smith will be looking for someone else to do so in the not too distant future.