Buckeyes are officially back: Upset of Purdue thrusts program atop the Big Ten
Coaches — like players, because most coaches are proud former players themselves, after all — keep close to mind the slights, even unintended ones.
So of course Chris Holtmann remembers what they didn’t ask him. Words unspoken then because of what couldn’t have been forecast for February and March.
The Big Ten held its preseason media day last fall, on Oct. 19, at Madison Square Garden. The legendary venue was chosen because this season, the Big Ten is taking its league championship to New York City for the first time. In order for the Big Ten to do this, it needed to make the uncommon decision to move up its league tourney a week, so that the Big East could continue to have its conference tournament at MSG in its traditional week.
Since the Big Ten tournament will end March 4, there will be an 11-day gap between the end of league tournament play and the first Thursday of the NCAA Tournament. It presents a reasonable question: Is that time off going to present a competitive disadvantage for Big Ten teams in the Big Dance?
So back in October, when Tom Izzo, Matt Painter, John Beilein, Greg Gard, Archie Miller, Richard Pitino and other Big Ten coaches with NCAA Tournament experience were conversing with media, many of them were asked about this scheduling quirk.
Holtmann wasn’t asked that question, and he has kept the innocent oversight in his jacket pocket ever since. (In fact, he was asked only five questions that day.)
Holtmann reflected on this over the phone with CBS Sports on Wednesday, approximately seven hours before he walked off the floor at Mackey Arena with a season-affirming 64-63 triumph at No. 3 Purdue — the latest victory in what has become the success story that almost nobody saw coming, Holtmann included. In October, very few people thought Ohio State was going to be in the NCAA Tournament. That’s why nobody cared what Holtmann thought about an 11-day layoff.
He’ll certainly be questioned about it in a few weeks, though — but it probably won’t be for a couple of days until after the Big Ten tournament gets going, because Ohio State is shockingly playing its way to double-bye status. These Buckeyes, most of whom were on the roster last season and meandered to a 17-15 record, are inexplicably 21-5, ranked 14th and sitting atop the Big Ten standings (12-1) after stealing a game against a Purdue team that had won 19 straight.
Holtmann is a magician who will sheepishly cop to not even knowing the secret to a few of his own tricks. The delayed firing of former Buckeyes coach Thad Matta last June came as a bolt from the blue. OSU athletic director Gene Smith was critiqued for his timing of the decision. In retrospect, Smith must be commended because his gut feeling turned into a move that saved Ohio State’s program. The Buckeyes were sputtering under Matta, still a school legend, who had nonetheless lost the pace in recruiting.
Holtmann was hired away from Butler, and the expectation for Year 1 was that there was no expectation.
So much for that. Twenty-six games into his tenure, the outlook is permanently changed. The Buckeyes are right there with Auburn as the biggest surprise in the sport. And after Auburn’s home loss to Texas A&M on Wednesday night, Holtmann could be considered the frontrunner for National Coach of the Year.
College basketball has a cluster of great stories this season. At this point, Holtmann’s seamless transition in Columbus might be at the top of the list. On Wednesday night, OSU led for only 2 minutes and 27 seconds. It managed to overcome a 14-point deficit in one of the rowdiest venues in the sport while only shooting 6 for 18 from beyond the arc. Keita Bates-Diop, who will be under consideration for All-America status in a month, won the game on this play with 2.6 seconds to go after blurting into the paint for a winning putback.
No. 14 @OhioStateHoops has gone into Mackey and snapped No. 3 Purdue’s D-I leading 19-game winning streak!
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) February 8, 2018
Bates-Diop ended with 18 points and 11 rebounds. He’s Ohio State’s most talented player, and here in his junior season he is finally playing like the team’s best.
“First of all, I give Thad a lot of credit for recruiting a guy of his caliber,” Holtmann told CBS Sports. “He and Jae’Sean [Tate]. We’ve got some gaps in our recruiting classes behind these guys because of all the transfers they had, but Thad deserves a lot of credit for [Bates-Diop and Tate]. He was never been forced to be as assertive as we needed him to be, though. In the offseason we worked with getting him to his spots on the floor where he’s most comfortable, where what works for him.”
The Buckeyes’ victory marked the first time since 2014 that they won on the road against a ranked team. It also qualifies as the sixth best victory this season in all of college basketball, according to the KPI. OSU has quickly grown up from being a cute story to taking on the role of unsuspecting Big Ten bully.
Still, all the answers can’t be provided. The lack of backcourt depth was thought to be the hindrance with this team, so much so that Holtmann and his staff believed it would hamper their shot at being competitive in the Big Ten. Senior graduate transfer Andrew Dakich was set to finish out his career at Quinnipiac before Ohio State’s staff enticed him to come to Columbus. At the time, the move was seen as a desperate attempt to cobble together a functioning backcourt.
“He’s been a better perimeter defender than I ever anticipated,” Holtmann said. “That’s really been critical for us. He’s a guy that understands offensively who the best players on the floor are, and he knows it’s not him, and defensively he can really do some good things. He has been better for us than I even expected.”
It was Dakich’s loose-ball rebound with 20 seconds remaining on Wednesday night that kept possession for Ohio State and allowed the Buckeyes their shot to take the lead.
Before the game, I asked Holtmann what his team would need to do in order to pull the stunner. He sounded hopeful but not exceedingly confident because of Purdue’s balance, shooting, size, coaching and the venue. The Boilermakers hadn’t lost at home all season.
Here’s what he said: “We’re going to have offensively be as efficient as we’ve been all year. Purdue’s going to have to miss some shots. They’re too complete of a team. They can get to a Final Four, they can get to national championship. They do have a legitimate chance. We’re going to have to make some open shots. We’re going to have play as complete a game as we’ve played all year.”
Holtmann said they would use single coverage in the post against 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas and try not to fall prey to trapping him. This remained true for most of the evening. On the game’s final play, Haas caught a court-long pass, was defended one-on-on by Kaleb Wesson. Wesson got a hand up, Haas’ fadeaway shot fell wrong, and the upset was clinched.
It was the fourth time in the past 13 months Holtmann knocked off a top-three team. Earlier this season, Ohio State took down No. 2 Michigan State. Last season at Butler, Holtmann coached the Bulldogs to a season sweep of Villanova. The Wildcats were No.1 and No. 2 at the time of those upsets.
With this victory, the Buckeyes are almost at lock status for the NCAA Tournament. On Sunday afternoon, when the Selection Committee will reveal its in-season top 16 teams on CBS, Ohio State will have a realistic shot at seeing its name on the screen, particularly if OSU can beat Iowa on Saturday. If OSU is there, the exposure will confirm the Buckeyes to be not merely one of college basketball’s best teams, but more definitively one of its best stories.