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Ohio State Coach Chris Holtmann and His Unorthodox Approach

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After getting throttled by Gonzaga, can Holtmann lead the Buckeyes to an upset over North Carolina?

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Ohio State Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

In many ways, Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann has approached the Buckeyes’ non-conference schedule with curiosity, focused on establishing momentum and crafting an identity. His methodology has resembled more philosophy than mathematics.

“For us, the end game is get better today, that’s really the end game,” Holtmann said. “We’ll have some goals in terms of specific measurements we want to hit, but at least in my experience, that’s when I feel like teams I’ve coached have been able to reach potential.”

Following a largely blip free start, the team headed into the PK80 riding high. Yet Holtmann stayed reserved, tempering expectations and keeping his squad grounded. Ohio State was promptly pounded by Gonzaga, blew an eyebrow raising lead to Butler, and dropped a winnable home contest with Clemson in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.

For Holtmann, though, it is all part of the process.

“We have some guys that genuinely want to win, and can get wrapped up in the emotion of it and get frustrated, kind of ‘here we go again,’” Holtmann said after the Clemson loss. “We have to find a way to not have that thinking. I really think it’s baby steps when it comes to that for us right now.”

The Buckeyes bounced back strong, nabbing two conference wins in the Big Ten’s unorthodox December schedule. Three more victories in the past week and a half have Ohio State back in the same position they found themselves in late November. Yet again, a powerhouse matchup on a neutral court across the country looms large. Only this time, Holtmann has more tools in the belt.

Given the Buckeyes’ glaring lack of depth at point guard, Holtmann entered the season in a traditional, ridged substitution pattern. If junior guard C.J. Jackson was off the floor, senior guard Andrew Dakich was on it, and vice versa. However, Holtmann shook up the rotation, bringing Jackson off the bench and sliding senior forward Jae’Sean Tate over as the starting ball handler. The success was clear, but the lineup tweaks were far from finished.

In dominant victories over William & Mary, Appalachian State, and The Citadel, Holtmann tinkered less with x and o strategy, instead treating the contests like a rotational playground, experimenting with unique lineups and on court pairings. Of these lineups, perhaps none were as unorthodox, and unexpectedly successful, as the ball handling trio of Jackson, Dakich, and Tate.

In a tight first half against Appalachian State, Holtmann ran a lineup with Jackson, Dakich, and Tate all at once, joining junior forward Keita Bates-Diop and sophomore forward Andre Wesson. The Buckeyes promptly went on a 6-0 run, punctuated by high energy and smart ball movement leading to a vicious Tate slam:

Early in the second half, Appalachian State crept back, and once again Holtmann turned to his trio of primary ballhandlers. This time, the platoon sparked a 15-4 run, and Ohio State pulled away for good.

The motivation behind the change, and ultimate reason for success, was clear.

“I don’t think we were moving super well offensively, our bodies weren’t moving,” Holtmann said. “The ball probably wasn’t moving as much as we would like in the first half, it was a combination of both.”

After their tumultuous offseason, with all the upheaval and bumps along the way, the Buckeyes find themselves knocking on the door of the top 25. A win over the North Carolina Tar Heels on Saturday would likely result in not just a ranking, but capturing the nation’s attention. Holtmann’s cerebral approach to his lineups just might be the key.