COLUMBUS — Chris Holtmann is well aware of expectations at Ohio State.
The Buckeyes have been ranked in the top 25 each of his four years in Columbus, including the top 15 in three of the four. But they’ve yet to make it to the Sweet Sixteen, and the latest NCAA Tournament trip ended with a first-round loss to No. 15 seed Oral Roberts. He admitted last week that he knows Ohio State hasn’t reached the peak of Thad Matta’s run, when the Buckeyes made the four-consecutive trips to the Sweet Sixteen while also appearing in the Final Four in 2007 and 2012.
The recent additions of Joey Brunk and Jamari Wheeler through the transfer portal were made to help the Buckeyes take those next steps. Neither are dynamic scorers, but each are experienced — capable of meshing with new teammates and giving Holtmann’s staff a better chance to return Ohio State to the deeper rounds of the Big Dance.
“We’ve really yet to have a really poor season,” Holtmann said. “In some ways that’s a good thing, it also ratchets up expectations right away. I think I’m always looking at ways to improve and take the next step, perform and do better in certain areas. While we certainly have established a level of success and competitiveness — nationally, I believe we’ve been ranked in the top 25 every year but in the top 15 three of the four years.
“There’s a national relevancy that I think has been reached. We have not reached, by any stretch, the peak years of Thad’s incredible run or coach [Jim] O’Brien couple years there or dating back to others, the run in the ’60s was the one that got to the final finish line. That’s our goal. That’s what we’re working towards every day. I acknowledge the fact we have work to do towards that.”
How Ohio State uses Brunk and Wheeler hasn’t been established. Ibrahima Diallo announced earlier this week he’s transferring, putting the Buckeyes one under the scholarship limit. They still have plenty of depth in the post, featuring six players in their frontcourt with Brunk’s addition. The number could jump back up to seven, though, as Holtmann now has room to add yet another player this offseason. Ohio State is reportedly interested in two-time NAIA All-American, EJ Onu, who recently entered the transfer portal.
Without knowing E.J. Liddell’s status as the NBA Draft process moves forward, Holtmann doesn’t want to set Brunk’s role so soon — particularly now that Kyle Young is returning. At the very least, the a 6-foot-11 big man can spend the offseason learning the Buckeyes system and will be counted to share minutes with Zed Key at center. He originally committed to Butler during Holtmann’s tenure, playing for three seasons before transferring to Indiana for a year. He started for the Hoosiers in 2019-20, averaging 6.8 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. Last season he was sidelined with a back injury, which has since healed.
“Joey is a guy who has never played more than 20 minutes, but he did play 20 minutes on an NCAA Tournament team,” Holtmann said. “Whatever people want to say about that team, that Indiana team was an NCAA Tournament team. I think a quality team. He performed well there and was able to provide a big presence. I think in our minds we could see, I do know we will not play as ‘small’ as we did last year. I think that provides more opportunities for Zed and Joey as well.”
Wheeler’s addition in the guard rotation immediately gives Ohio State much-needed veteran experience. With C.J. Walker moving on from the program and Duane Washington Jr. feeling out his NBA future, Wheeler becomes one of the oldest guard on the roster. A transfer from Penn State, he averaged 6.8 points per game last season. He’ll be expected to help bring along Meechie Johnson Jr.
But his biggest impact comes on the defensive side of the ball. One of the best defenders in the Big Ten the last few years, he can immediately gives the Buckeyes some credibility on defense. A 6-foot-1, 170-pound guard, Wheeler will be asked to help improve Ohio State’s scoring defense.
“Jamari obviously meets a need for us in terms of both his defense, his on-ball presence,” Holtmann said. “His offense has improved, as we know. He can be a real pest on the ball, that’s for sure.”
Neither Brunk or Wheeler will be the most exciting plans on the floor next season. Their impacts might not even be noticed at times, possibly even overshadowed by other NBA-level talent on the roster.
But Holtmann is trying to assemble a team, one that can contend for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament and Big Ten crown. The new additions can fill two holes the Buckeyes need production from to get past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.