TULSA, Okla. — A year ago on Selection Sunday, Gene Smith stood right underneath the scoreboard at Value City Arena, smiling as he watched his first-year coach accept an NCAA Tournament bid and joking about how he saw it all coming for Ohio State.
Did he really know after a whirlwind hiring process what he had in Chris Holtmann and what he might do so quickly after taking over the Buckeyes?
“If I had, I would have gone to Vegas,” Smith said back then with a smile.
For anybody else who has been smart enough to bet on the Ohio State coach, the money was pouring in yet again on Friday night at the BOK Center. And while there are plenty of unexpected accomplishments to choose from, the upset he engineered as the No. 11 seed in a 62-59 win over No. 6 Iowa State might go down as the crown jewel at this point.
Holtmann seemed to know it as Smith walked out on the floor to greet him once again, slinging an arm around his shoulder — this time on a court hundreds of miles away from Columbus.
The Buckeyes weren’t exactly dramatic underdogs, but they also weren’t a trendy pick against the high-scoring Cyclones. Holtmann pays close attention to those things, and he also could clearly see on tape that Iowa State was going to take every bit of effort he could wring out of the Buckeyes to pull off another surprise. The Buckeyes don’t have great depth, they are often a limited offensive team and their margin for error often comes down to whether their star sophomore is in foul trouble or not.
Certainly it would have been easy for the matchup to go haywire for Ohio State. But even in the crazy, unpredictable Madness of March, that just doesn’t happen to Holtmann. He’s undefeated in first-round games during his five appearances, and the Buckeyes now have two of those victories under his impressive leadership — which would have been almost unthinkable given the mess he inherited when he took over the program.
“It’s hard to overstate it,” Holtmann said. “This [win] is certainly up there in terms of ones where I am so appreciative — maybe as much as any.
“I think, honestly, it’s really good players who have committed to understanding what this time of year is about. It’s about our team, it’s about playing and committing to playing a certain way. It’s really good players who want to be a part of this time of year, playing as long as they can and committing to playing a certain way. … Players win games. And the way our players were attacking their responsibilities in terms of our game plan was tremendous.”
The Buckeyes in uniform obviously deserve tons of credit, and there’s a lot of it to spread around after a performance as solid as the one it delivered in front of a hostile crowd in Oklahoma.
Keyshawn Woods continued his remarkable postseason, knocking down clutch shots and pouring in 19 points. Anybody expect that given the wild inconsistency throughout his only regular season with the program?
Musa Jallow stole the show with his athleticism, emerging as a difference-making threat on both ends of the floor in what should go down as the best outing of his career to date. Who had that as a likely outcome for the Buckeyes with the season on the line?
C.J. Jackson was again a steady presence despite playing out of position at point guard. What were the odds that he would play 31 minutes without a turnover?
Kaleb Wesson stayed out of foul trouble and dominated the post. Duane Washington answered the bell with a big-time 3-pointer. Andre Wesson tracked down three offensive rebounds. That trifecta probably wouldn’t have had many takers either, right?
That’s just one game, and it’s only scratching the surface of results Holtmann has prodded out of the Buckeyes that have vastly exceeded the expectations. But the body of work is piling up that Ohio State really hit the jackpot with Holtmann, and it should only get better for the program from here once his touted recruiting class arrives and he gets a fully-stocked roster to work with down the road.
Of course, that’s a task for another day. These Buckeyes aren’t done yet, and maybe that shouldn’t be such a surprise after all.
“We’re going to come out every game and give it our all,” freshman guard Luther Muhammad said. “We’re going to stay together, no matter if we’re up or down. And that just says so much about how well we’re coached. Coach Holtmann is a great guy, this staff is terrific and they do a great job of scouting and getting us prepared.
“I thanked him for believing in us. If it wasn’t for them, we probably wouldn’t even be in the game.”
Just getting to one in the NCAA Tournament was another significant addition to the Chris Holtmann resumé. But he isn’t done yet this season, and he’s honestly just getting started with the Buckeyes.