It felt a little bit like Civil War medicine, the way it all went down. The program was wounded—bleeding and in danger of infection. The doctors in charge had two options: try to treat the wound and risk the rot spreading, or play it safe and just lop off the entire leg.
In the end, Athletic Director Gene Smith handed Thad Matta a bottle of whiskey and a stick and got to sawing.
Not much use in extolling the exploits of the dearly departed Matta. Almost impossible not to, though. The man won more games as the coach of Ohio State basketball than anyone before him. More games than the three preceding coaches combined, in fact, and in five fewer seasons. Two Final Fours, a pile of Sweet Sixteens and Elite Eights, five conference titles … you get the idea.
Oh, and since people in this town only really care about football, here’s a note that may resonate: the last football coach at OSU to have coached longer than Thad Matta did was Woody Hayes. For whatever that’s worth.
Nevertheless, Matta never cut down the final net. Never hoisted the ultimate trophy with champagne spraying around him, mugging for the cameras. So, to use another football reference, people will probably (unfairly) put him in John Cooper territory. He won a lot of games, they’ll say. He just didn’t win the game. In reality, Matta stepped down as much for health reasons than anything else. But a footnote is still a footnote.
So on we all move into the tenure of one Chris Holtmann, formerly (like Matta) of Butler University where he made the NCAA Tournament in each of his three seasons. He has been named Coach of the Year in his conference twice (Big South, 2013; Big East, 2017) and won the John McLendon National Coach of the Year award a year ago after taking Butler to the Sweet Sixteen.
Holtmann will captain the ship with a skeleton crew—just ten scholarship players grace the roster, half of whom have either very limited game experience at the college level or none at all.
In the backcourt, sophomore C.J. Jackson takes the reins. He played a competent point last season, and will see his minutes skyrocket in the absence of the dismissed JaQuan Lyle. He’ll need to work on his shot selection if he maintains a scorer’s role, but he has mentioned in the past that he prefers to keep the ball moving and find open men.
Senior Kam Williams will hopefully be one of those open men. Williams is a proven shooter (one of the few the Buckeyes have at this point), yet he saw his percentages take a dip last season with the offense in disarray. He’s got a high ceiling in the right role—hopefully Holtmann can help him find it.
Speaking of roles, senior forward Jae’Sean Tate may see his change. Tate is no doubt talented, but a player with his skill set probably shouldn’t be leading his team in shots taken. No matter what, he is the team’s leader and emotional core. He’s a good defender, solid rebounder, and high-percentage scorer (.550 from the field for his career), but it would be good to see some of the offensive pressure taken off him.
That may happen with the return of Keita Bates-Diop who, thanks to a medical redshirt, still has two years of eligibility remaining. There are moments when KBD has looked like the best player on the floor. There are other moments in which he has been difficult to spot. He, like the program as a whole, has an opportunity to start fresh.
Sophomore center Micah Potter, a rangy 6-foot-9 center with a decent outside shot, will continue getting plenty of floor time as the only true post with any experience. He was inconsistent in his freshman campaign. The entire team was inconsistent, though, and he’s got plenty of upside still.
Right behind Potter is the most decorated of the three incoming freshman, Westerville native Kaleb Wesson. At 6-foot-9 and somewhere between 269 and 316 pounds (reports vary wildly), Wesson already has the size to stand up to Big Ten competition. Ohio State figures to be pretty up-tempo this year, but Wesson wouldn’t have committed to OSU if he didn’t fit. He’s an intriguing story to watch.
Wesson the younger is joined by his comparatively slender big brother, Andre, a 6-6 small forward who got some burn a year ago. He’s one of a few such wings who’ll be coming off the bench early and often. Included in that group are freshmen Kyle Young, the second-ranked recruit in the state behind Kaleb, and Musa Jallow, an Indiana product who walked away from his hometown Hoosiers to join Holtmann in Columbus.
Wesson, Young, and Jallow are all skilled players and should contribute right away. The hope, of course, is that they contribute in positive ways and build a strong foundation for the immediate future.
The tenth scholarship player is graduate transfer guard Andrew Dakich, formerly of Michigan. Yes, he transferred from Michigan to Ohio State. Everyone calm down. A career reserve, Dakich will bring experience and leadership to a team that needs both.
Holtmann has some pieces. He’s hit the recruiting trail hard already and has notched a solid 2018 class full of four-star guys. How important it will be for him to have success early remains to be seen. The Big Ten doesn’t project as a powerhouse conference this year, but that doesn’t mean the Buckeyes are likely to finish in the top half of the league. Going .500 in league play would be a hoot. That said, finishing behind where they were last season (7-11) doesn’t seem farfetched in the slightest.
But who knows? At least there’s new life, right? The program got a shot in the arm, that’s for sure.
Now we get to find out what was in the needle. •
Ohio State’s season begins November 10 at home versus Robert Morris.