Chris Holtmann Ohio State Buckeyes

Where Do You Turn When Your Program Hits Rock Bottom?

They say you have to hit rock bottom before you can start the climb back up. What they don’t tell you is how long the stay at rock bottom can be if you don’t do anything about it.

Northwestern came into Value City Arena Thursday night and walked out with a 69-63 win over the Buckeyes. The Wildcats were the underdog, but it would be dishonest to call the win an upset.

It used to be that when Northwestern came into your arena you could just chalk it up as an automatic win. This is no longer the Northwestern of old, however. And it’s not exactly the Ohio State of old, either.

The Ohio State men’s basketball team is currently saddled with 3-10 conference record. The last time they had a record this bad in conference play, Michael Redd was a true freshman and Scoonie Penn was sitting out the season having transferred over from Boston College.

It was 25 years ago.

Gas was just a penny. Cable television wasn’t even invented yet.

Okay, the last two citations are an exaggeration. Unfortunately, the situation with the basketball program right now doesn’t need any exaggerating. Reality is coldly sufficient.

Ohio State is 11-13 on the season. They have lost 10 of their last 11 games. Many of those games could have been won, but it’s getting more and more difficult to say that during this current five-game losing streak.

Hell, even having to distinguish between five-game losing streaks isn’t a great sign.

“Are you talking about this five-game losing streak or the last one?”

Either. Neither. Both? It doesn’t matter. It’s all part of the same smudge-filled canvas.

Things are bad. And even if they get better this year, what does it matter? Barring a miracle run in the Big Ten Tournament, this season is over. Sure, there are still games to play, but in a sport measured by the postseason, any season without a postseason falls short.

As head coach Chris Holtmann and his Buckeyes stand with their backs against the wall for their annual measurement by athletic director Gene Smith, and Smith pencils in how tall the team has gotten over the past year, what is the reaction going to be to the program actually shrinking over the past 365 days?

This was never going to be a great team for Holtmann. He lost two players to the NBA, including a freshman that nobody was expecting to lose early on. But it’s also fair to ask why an Ohio State can’t withstand losing two players to the NBA.

How does this program see itself, and is it a picture of a program that isn’t able to replenish talent for talent?

There are calls from fans for Holtmann to be fired. Fans are always asking for head coaches to be fired though. Just ask Ryan Day.

The first cries are emotional and should be ignored. The final cries, however, are the last vestiges of any emotional connection at all. The silence then becomes a Thursday night game at a 19,000-seat arena with barely half that many people still willing to deal with parking.

Welcome to Rock Bottom.

Don’t stay too long, or you may grow roots.

Gene Smith has some thinking to do. Holtmann was given a contract extension last spring that pays him $3.5 million a year through the 2027-2028 season. That’s plenty of protection on Holtmann’s side for now, but that’s not his only protection.

When Smith fired Thad Matta, it was the right move. The program was stagnant at that point and there were no signs it was going to improve. And if there had been signs of improvement, Matta wouldn’t have been fired. It’s not like he was fired after the end of the season — he was fired in June.

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Currently, there are plenty of signs that things will get better for OSU. This is a talented young corps of players, with more already waiting in the wings.

However, has Holtmann already displayed his potential at Ohio State? And what happens if all of those young players who have people excited decide that the way things have gone this year has soured them on the idea of being Buckeyes?

The transfer portal is very real. Just ask Holtmann, who was banking on it this year to find some veterans to lean on.

College basketball can swing wildly from one season to the next. It’s the state of the game right now. One player can save you. Another can sink you.

I don’t think you fire a guy after one bad season, but this season has to have shaken the confidence of OSU’s decision makers. How can they be sure they have the right guy for the job after a season like this one? It’s a tough question that they’ll need to continue to explore.

But also, if having a losing record at Ohio State isn’t a fireable offense, then why spend so much money on coaches and facilities? What exactly are the requisite standards supposed to be?

The last three times the men’s basketball team has had a record like this, the head coach has been fired. But those firings were also on the heels of additional failures.

Matta was fired following a 17-15 season, but had missed the NCAA Tournament two years in a row. Jim O’Brien was fired following a 14-16 season, but was also 31-31 over his final two years (and had some NCAA issues). Randy Ayers was fired following a 10-17 season, which was his fourth losing season in a row.

To this point, Holtmann has yet to achieve the expectations this program claims to have. But next year he may be better suited than ever before to reach those expectations.

Based on Holtmann’s history and the construction of the Buckeye roster moving forward, this season should be an anomaly. And you generally don’t fire coaches for anomalies.

The real question that Gene Smith is going to have to answer is what kind of ceiling he wants this program to have, and whether or not he believes Chris Holtmann is the man to get them there.

Once he decides that, then maybe they can start to put rock bottom in the rearview mirror.

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