BOISE, Idaho — A sobering November memory was enough to put the March party on hold for Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann, at least for a couple of hours.
The guy who left Taco Bell Arena with a huge smile on his face after cracking jokes at the expense of everybody who picked against the Buckeyes and leading a raucous bracket-advancing celebration got back to the hotel on Thursday and pressed play on some buzz-killing film.
There certainly haven’t been all that many low moments for the West Region’s No. 5 seed during Ohio State’s fairy-tale turnaround this season. But perhaps the worst of them just so happened to come at the hands of the team waiting for the Buckeyes on Saturday in the second round, and Holtmann spent his evening reliving his last matchup with Gonzaga instead of reveling in yet another accomplishment for his first year with the program.
“It was really a pleasant couple hours,” the sarcastic Holtmann said before practice on Friday. “Really enjoyed that.
“It was a mismatch. It wasn’t close. We got drilled. We were absolutely drilled, and outside of the first 15 minutes, I feel bad. We’ve got to find a way to put ourselves in better position, because their length bothered us, their size really bothered us, their physicality really bothered us. It was our worst loss of the season. They got us good.”
No team for the rest of the year would dominate the Buckeyes in quite the same way as Gonzaga, which pasted them in the PK80 Invitational by 27 points in the fifth game of the year.
Now Ohio State gets a shot at revenge and an opportunity to show how far it has gone since the opening month of the season. But looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see how that lopsided loss even that early in the year became a turning point, setting the stage for all the positives that came after it.
‘People just got tired of losing’
Holtmann was still in the early stages of putting his stamp on Ohio State. A coachable group of players was willing to buy into his system, but the trust wasn’t quite there yet. For a team that hadn’t experienced much success over the last couple of years and wasn’t expected to even remotely contend for the postseason, there wasn’t much reason for confidence.
That was a tricky situation going into the Gonzaga game, and it was even more complicated afterward, thanks to the 86-59 score. Would Ohio State use that as a learning lesson and a motivator to get better or would that setback send it down a more negative path?
“We didn’t want what has gone on before to happen again,” senior Kam Williams said. “We didn’t want that for us, we didn’t want that for Coach Holtmann. We just stuck together, and Coach Holtmann embraced all of us and let us know that he has our backs.
“We really didn’t have an identity then. But this team is unbelievable resilient. We’ve got a lot of strong-willed guys on this team, and that type of edge, we didn’t really have that before. It’s the extra boost we needed to get going in the right direction.”
It wasn’t exactly the smoothest trajectory right away, but the tone was set with some postgame conversations, with the veterans making it clear they wouldn’t accept going back to the effort, execution or energy that kept them out of the NCAA Tournament for the last two years.
Ohio State bounced back to beat Stanford in the next game of the tournament, but then it blew a late double-digit lead to Butler and was blown off the court in the second half when it returned home to play Clemson. But the message was starting to sink in by the time December arrived, and Ohio State start playing with the mentality that propelled it to the Big Dance by dismantling Wisconsin on the road and following that up with a meaningful win over rival Michigan two days later.
“I think people just got tired of losing, more than anything,” guard Andrew Dakich said. “You give credit to everyone. People playing with more confidence, coaches trusting people to be on the court for late minutes. Getting a feel for our offense and what we want on the defensive end, it’s a testament to our coaches and players buying into the system.”
Put the puzzle together
While changing the mentality was certainly an important hurdle, Holtmann was also facing a pressing challenge simply figuring out how to use the physical bodies at his disposal.
If Ohio State was going to compete against anybody, he needed to get a better handle on how to deploy the roster he inherited. And by his own admission, that didn’t happen in time for a major test against an established program like Gonzaga.
“I think once we got into a little bit of a rhythm and maybe we as a coaching staff understood some more of our guys’ strengths, that really helped us,” Holtmann said. “And I think it also took time for them to understand kind of what our expectations were. We thought it would take some time; it always does with a new coach.
“I don’t know that I did the best job early. … You know, we were searching a little bit there. It’s not only for them learning to trust us, but also to learn the best places to put your players on the floor.”
That process takes time, and five games clearly weren’t enough to nail down all the details.
But some of the signs started emerging even in that loss to the Bulldogs. Kaleb Wesson made the first start of his career, paving the way for the freshman to grow and get more comfortable in the rotation.
Keita Bates-Diop was largely bottled up by Gonzaga’s defensive game plan, but his two-way game was starting to blossom as he grabbed 10 rebounds — foreshadowing his emergence as a nightly double-double threat and one of the nation’s best players.
Even a proven commodity such as Jae’Sean Tate saw glimpses of what he could offer in this new system during his final year with the program, fighting through a physical contest for 12 points and continuing to establish himself as the team’s clear-cut leader.
“Honestly, I think that was one of our biggest tests and our biggest lesson that we learned this whole season,” Tate said. “We learned a lot from that. If you go back to that game and watch the film, it was a close game in the first half and we showed snippets of what it takes to be a successful team.”
‘Same faces,’ different Ohio State team
The Buckeyes collectively didn’t have to sit through all of the film with Holtmann on Thursday night, and the plan only called for showing them a couple of clips after practice on Friday.
Maybe they will be used for motivation or just a reminder of the personnel they’re facing on Saturday — or both. But either way, the team wearing Ohio State jerseys on that film might be close to unrecognizable compared to this battle-tested version at this point of the year.
“It’s a lot of the same faces, but, again, that’s why Chris is up for national coach of the year,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Just an unbelievable job. We watched them as they ran through that Big Ten almost to the last week of the season. … [In November] he was trying to get his system and philosophy put in. We were trying to integrate a bunch of new faces and players in different roles. And I think the game was closer than the final result.
“They did a great job getting them to believe and really come together. They seem like they’re really connected.”
Gonzaga played a role in forging that bond and helping a revamped program work through some growing pains in a hurry.
Now the Buckeyes get a chance to thank the Bulldogs for the painful lesson in person, and maybe return the favor.