Most fans and pundits didn't expect much from this Ohio State basketball team—and with good reason. But a new coach and some clutch victories injected a renewed sense of excitement into a struggling program.
There are no good words to accompany the sudden end to a season that comes with an NCAA Tournament loss. Two time zones and thousands of miles from home, Jae'Sean Tate was struggling to find a few.
Firmly established as the heart and soul of the program during his four-year career, the eyes of the senior matched the scarlet Ohio State jersey he was wearing for the final time. Roughly 30 minutes earlier, the Buckeyes had seen their season end in Boise, Idaho, with a scrappy 90-84 loss to favored Gonzaga in the second round of the tournament.
Wedged at the far end of a cramped, narrow, rectangular locker room, Tate's single locker could scarcely hold the overflow of reporters and cameras seeking him out. Never one to shy away from the spotlight, Tate shook off the sadness, cast his eyes upward and tried to makes sense of the season that had led him here.
“We were supposed to be done a month ago, and to be able to come here and compete against a team that's going to the Sweet 16, this team, we set the standard,” Tate said. “We ended up coming up short, but I think the way we fought this year, we put Ohio State back on the map, and I couldn't be prouder.”
It all started with a secret meeting more than nine months earlier.
Meeting His Guys
Any thoughts of reaching the NCAA Tournament, contending for a Big Ten title or pointing the program back in the right direction seemed like pure fantasy for those Buckeyes who remained with the program in early June of 2017. A sixth straight season of diminishing win totals and a mass exodus of transfers from the program culminated when the 2016–17 Buckeyes didn't make the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row and were even passed over for the also-ran NIT tournament.
When a June 5 press conference was called to offer the shocking announcement that coach Thad Matta had been fired, it marked rock bottom. That day, athletic director Gene Smith made an audacious promise to the team and in particular to the seniors: They would have a new coach by the end of the week. The pledge would come to fruition four days later when, inside the team meeting room at Value City Arena, former Butler coach Chris Holtmann was addressing his new team. Little did they know that Holtmann initially had declined Smith's offer, and a conversation with Creighton's Greg McDermott proved fruitless, before Smith went back to Holtmann and upped the ante. The shine, it seemed, was definitely off the OSU basketball program.
Merely hours after signing an eight-year contract at a Dayton-area hotel to take over the Ohio State program, Holtmann had made the drive to Columbus in secret. A press conference would follow on the upcoming Monday, but Holtmann first wanted to introduce himself to his new players. During a two-hour meeting, he promised them a few things: While the public and the pundits expected little of this team, there would be no looking past the final year of this senior class or downplaying the importance of sending them off right.
The message immediately resonated with the downtrodden Buckeyes, who would discover a driven, committed coach focused on getting a little bit better every day—even if he needed the occasional Diet Mountain Dew to keep him going.
“We knew he had success last year [at Butler], and once he came over and actually talked to us, it showed that he cared, and he wasn't just in it for himself … Everyone liked him in that moment and bought in,” said junior guard C.J. Jackson a few months later.
That initial meeting was only the start. Holtmann inherited a roster that, at that moment, had seven returning players, two freshmen and some pending decisions to make. Redshirt freshman Derek Funderburk was academically ineligible and would eventually have to be dismissed from the program, and freshman Braxton Beverly would opt to transfer to North Carolina State. And then there was JaQuan Lyle, a rising junior point guard who had quit the team in the offseason two years in a row under Matta but was again hoping to rejoin the program under Holtmann. It was an early test: With the backcourt dangerously low on experience, Lyle's skills could help. But after consulting with members of the team, the decision was made to forge on without him. Holtmann would add two more freshmen in Kyle Young and Musa Jallow, and his team was set—and almost completely unknown.
The coming weeks would be filled with individual meetings, shoehorned in whenever a frenetic recruiting schedule would allow, and multiple dinners at Holtmann's new home in Upper Arlington, purchased specifically because of its close proximity to campus.
As the Ohio State football team trailed Penn State by 11 points at halftime, Holtmann arrived inside the press box at Ohio Stadium for a mini press conference. Multiple recruits were on hand for unofficial visits, having just seen the basketball team go through an open practice at Value City Arena, and Holtmann was already taking ownership of his first team.
“These are all our guys now, right?” said Holtmann. “Thad and his staff recruited them, but these are all our guys. What we want them to do is feel that they're a part of something and they're connected to something. It's not going to be without a lot of bumps. Certainly people have their doubts about this group, and I understand that. But we're going to really focus on preparing ourselves for being our best each and every day.”
As the start of the regular season inched closer, it wasn't hard for the Buckeyes to find added motivation. The preseason media predictions were so dour that assistant coach Ryan Pedon wallpapered one room of his office with prognostications of gloom and doom for the Buckeyes. A poll of Big Ten writers conducted jointly by theColumbus Dispatchand website The Athletic placed Ohio State 11th in the conference, and privately, many members of the completely revamped coaching staff said little to protest the notion. After all, there was a reason Holtmann held out for—and ultimately got—an eight-year contract. No one expected things to change overnight.
“There were plenty of question marks about us as a group,” Holtmann said in February. “New coach, new system. Who is this coach? How's he going to run his team? Is Keita [Bates-Diop] going to stay healthy? Where's their point guard play going to come from? Where's their guard depth? Struggling last year in Big Ten play, I really understood [the preseason ranking]. I wasn't angry. It made sense to me in a lot of ways.
“I didn't look at it like, ‘Well, we're going to show you,'” Holtmann said. “I just looked at it as we've got a challenge in front of us, we've got some questions we've got to answer.”
When the Big Ten congregated for media day to discuss the ramifications of moving the conference tournament up a week so that it could be held at Madison Square Garden—and leaving a weeklong gap before the start of the NCAA Tournament—Holtmann said his opinion was hardly solicited among the league's coaches. These same coaches had, during the summer recruiting season, let him (and probably a few top recruits) know that the Buckeyes of recent years had a reputation for wilting under pressure.
“Our response to adversity was not very good,” Holtmann said at the Big Ten media day. ?It needs to improve, and overall our toughness needs to improve. That's really been our challenge for them, and they've embraced that, I think. But we haven't seen how we handle adversity yet.”
It wouldn't take long to find those answers.
The turning points
Privately, there was some optimism within the locker room after the Buckeyes played Xavier in a closed-door preseason scrimmage and won. On a midseason teleconference for Big East coaches, Musketeers coach Chris Mack later said he came away from that game realizing that Ohio State had two players poised for all-Big Ten seasons: Keita Bates-Diop and Jae'Sean Tate.
A trip to Portland, Oregon, to take part in the PK80 Invitational brought a heavy dose of reality to the Buckeyes. After being outclassed by Gonzaga and an uninspiring win against Stanford, Ohio State drew the unenviable task of facing the same Butler team Holtmann and his staff had coached not even six months prior.
The night before the game, Holtmann took a few swigs of NyQuil and some medication in a futile attempt to get more than four hours of sleep. It didn't dull the pain of what would soon occur. At Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland, Holtmann took more than an earful from jilted Butler fans (“Boltmann” was among the nicer—and cleaner—things heard). Losing the game in overtime and blowing a 15-point second-half lead made name-calling the least of Holtmann's concerns. The game left Holtmann's wife, Lori, in tears in the stands, and her husband was visibly shaken, speaking in hushed tones in the white, sparse hallway leading to the locker room. “I haven't lost like this, maybe ever,” he said.
It felt like the Buckeyes' reputation for choking was not going to be so easily shed.
When Ohio State followed that up with a home game against Clemson as part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and let a double-digit, second-half lead disappear in a 14-point loss, heads were hanging. Turns out that a nice, quiet trip to Wisconsin against the also-rebuilding Badgers in the Big Ten opener was just what Ohio State needed.
In front of a subdued crowd bereft of students (they were on winter break), and a fan base otherwise occupied by the Big Ten football championship game between the same two schools later that evening, the Buckeyes didn't just win—they handed the Badgers a historic 25-point beating, the worst home defeat since the Kohl Center opened in 1998.
Holtmann also became the first Ohio State coach to win his Big Ten debut in a game that took place on the road. Presented with that fact while walking across the court following his postgame interview session, he quipped, “I'd have told you not to waste your time [looking that up beforehand].”
With a home game against Michigan looming two days later, there was little time for back-slapping. The game would be Ohio State's sixth in 11 days dating back to the start of the PK80, and the Buckeyes were exhausted, falling behind by 20 points to the Wolverines in the final minutes of the first half.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Big Ten basement. Ohio State closed the half with a 7-0 run and then smoked Michigan 41-19 in the second half to win by nine points. Suddenly the Buckeyes were 2-0 in conference play and feeling rejuvenated.
“The life that we showed going into Wisconsin; I remember saying to someone on the bench, ‘Wow, are we locked in,'” Holtmann said. “At that point you had a sense this group was about the right stuff.”
Holtmann would continually credit his players for digging deep for that newfound sense of mental toughness, saving his highest praise for Tate and Bates-Diop, the unquestioned leaders of the team. The two roommates balanced each other perfectly: Tate couldn't help but wear his heart on his sleeve, while Bates-Diop remained level-headed nearly to the point of nonchalance.
And as Bates-Diop continued to play himself into national acclaim and NBA mock drafts, it was Tate who willingly accepted a lesser role in the game plan. When Bates-Diop scored a career-high 35 points in a Feb. 4 win against Illinois, it moved the Buckeyes to 11-1 in the Big Ten and set up a road showdown with Purdue. Tate could be seen in the postgame video hugging him from behind without a care in the world. The unselfishness was inspiring.
Down the hallway from the visiting locker room in Purdue's Mackey Arena, the voices of elated basketball players singing the final lines of the “Buckeye Battle Cry” could be heard through closed doors. The postgame tradition had extra vigor after Ohio State's stunning, last-second win over the No. 3 Boilermakers. The Buckeyes climbed to No. 8 in the Associated Press poll. Holtmann continued to downplay his team's chances of winning the Big Ten title, a destiny that seemed so completely improbable barely a month earlier. But now the Buckeyes had a one-game lead in the conference with just four to play. The title was certainly within grasp.
And while back-to-back road losses at Penn State and Michigan dropped them out of the lead, it didn't prevent a celebratory atmosphere from overtaking senior night following a lopsided win over Rutgers in the final home game of the season. The festivities included Bates-Diop, indicating to fans that perhaps the red-shirt junior would declare himself eligible for the NBA draft at the season's conclusion. To some, senior night felt a bit like a celebration of a season not yet completed. Bates-Diop, Tate, fifth-year senior Kam Williams and graduate transfer Andrew Dakich each addressed the fans who stayed past the final whistle on what Holtmann called “a perfect night.”
Then the Buckeyes denied Indiana the same opportunity, prevailing in double overtime on a three-point heave by C.J. Jackson with 1.7 seconds left to spoil the Hoosiers' senior night. It cemented the most-successful Big Ten season for a first-year Ohio State coach in the program's history at 15-3.
“I think it's the most special [season] I've been a part of in coaching,” Holtmann said from inside the interview room as the Hoosiers went through the process of honoring their seniors on the court.
“We have had an agendaless group from our leadership from day one,” Holtmann said. “JT, Keita—they have said, ‘I don't want my legacy to be anything other than something people can be proud of.'”
Three days after the win at Indiana to close the regular season, Bates-Diop was named the league's player of the year, and Tate earned second-team all-league honors. Capping it all was Holtmann, who was named Big Ten coach of the year. It was the third conference in which he'd been named coach of the year in the last six years.
Not that he made a big deal out of it.
“Today when we found out who made the [all-conference] teams, he left himself out,” Tate said that evening. “Other coaches had to tell us he won coach of the year. That just speaks to how humble he is and how happy he is to coach us. That's why he deserves it the most.”
And if the Buckeyes needed any more lessons on remaining humble, their 2018 nemesis was happy to deliver the reminder. Second-seeded Ohio State was knocked out of the Big Ten tournament in the third round in a one-point loss to Penn State—their third loss of the season to the Nittany Lions. “We came here to win the whole thing,” junior guard C.J. Jackson said, “and to lose on the first night kind of sucks.”
The Final Run
It all led to Boise, where the Buckeyes made their return to the NCAA Tournament in the foothills of the snow-capped Boise Mountains. A trendy pick to suffer the curious-but-common first-round fate of a No. 5 seed falling to a No. 12 seed, Holtmann again played the “no respect” card in preparing his team to face South Dakota State.
The coach instructed a member of his support staff to make notecards with national predictions of a pending Ohio State defeat. The final result was a few dozen examples that were then shared with the players, and when the Jackrabbits were defeated, Holtmann couldn't resist a little jab.
“I just want to thank all the fine, smart, clever journalists who didn't pick us,” Holtmann said in a postgame television interview on TNT. “And trust me, our guys were aware of that.”
The locker room was a madhouse, with Williams taking top billing by scoring seven crucial points after South Dakota State tied the game late. When the chance to update the official bracket with an Ohio State decal was presented to the room, he was the unanimous choice to handle the honors, to thunderous applause.
Gonzaga now loomed ahead, the same Bulldogs team that had given Ohio State its worst loss of the season during the PK80. Underdogs again, the Buckeyes set a goal to prove they were a much different team than the one that took the court in late November.
They succeeded, but it still wasn't enough. A Bates-Diop three-pointer pushed OSU's lead to five points with 6:02 to play, and a pro-Gonzaga crowd started to grow restless inside Taco Bell Arena, but the Bulldogs put the game away with an 11-0 run that ultimately sealed Ohio State's fate.
“If you put it all out there, you can't really be mad at yourself, and I feel like that's what we did as a team,” said Williams, who like Tate was stuck in a corner of the locker room. “Obviously it sucks to lose, obviously it sucks to never put this jersey on again, but the way we fought, you can't be upset with the outcome because I feel like everybody gave it their all.”
By any measure, it was a season of overachievement. Holtmann won more games than any first-year coach in Ohio State history and was a finalist for national coach of the year honors, while Bates-Diop was named Big Ten player of the year and a second-team all-American before announcing his plans to enter the NBA draft.
The players to whom Holtmann had pledged his support nine months prior had done it. For the first time in years, Ohio State had enjoyed a season its fans could be proud of.
It's a start.
“Obviously we're going to feel the loss of these guys,” Holtmann said after Bates-Diop announced he was foregoing his fifth year and heading for the NBA. “You can't lose four guys that have this amount of impact and not feel it. At the end of the day we'll probably look at it and say we lost more than any team in the Big Ten. We've got some challenges and some work ahead of us.”
Then again, what's new?