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Fast Family: How Chris Holtmann rebuilt a winning culture in nine months at Ohio State

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Three days after Thad Matta was fired by Ohio State on a Monday morning in early June, two days after the then-Butler head coach was first approached about making the move to Columbus and less than 12 hours after Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith flew to Omaha in what appeared to be an attempt to hire Greg McDermott away from Creighton, Chris Holtmann sat in a Motel 6 in Dayton and said yes.

It was a Thursday, and as the sun rose that morning, Holtmann was told that Smith wanted to meet. Dayton is roughly halfway between Columbus and Indianapolis, and by the time you were finishing up your second cup of coffee, Holtmann was finalizing the particulars on what was a difficult, career-altering decision.

And it was in that moment that he knew the first thing that he had to do as Ohio State head coach.

Before looking for a place to live in Columbus, before meeting with the press or changing the header on his twitter account, Holtmann had to get in front of his new team.

He knew what his new team was going through because he knew what it felt like for him to have to tell the players in the Hinkle Fieldhouse locker rooms that he wasn’t coming back. He loved those guys the way that the players on the Ohio State roster loved Matta. Summer isn’t supposed to be a time of upheaval in college basketball, and yet on the first day of summer session classes, the Buckeyes found out that the man that had brought them to Columbus was not coming back. After four days of rumors flying out of all corners of the internet, a name was finally settled on.

But they didn’t know Holtmann just like Holtmann didn’t know them.

So that was the first step.

“I snuck over here before the press conference,” Holtmann said. Keep the media out of it. No press conferences. No cameras. Just a coach and his team. “Put our minds, and put our players’ minds, at ease. They were restless, it’s the middle of the summer and they had heard all these different names and they were without a coach. They loved Thad and his coaching staff, they loved those guys. It wasn’t like they weren’t disappointed.”

They were anxious.

Holtmann was, too.

Walking into a room with nine or ten guys that are looking to you as the leader of their basketball future is not an easy. “You just try to tell them this is who I am, this is what I feel like we are going to do,” Holtmann said. “Then I asked them to give me some of their thoughts, and they did. We had a meal together.”

“He wanted to let them know, ‘I’m here with you guys,'” assistant coach Terry Johnson said. “‘I want to be here. You want to be here. This is the way we should do things. I want to get to know you guys and I want you to get to know me.’ He asked for their input. ‘Why did this happen?’ They were on the inside, and he took their input, wrote it down, had thoughts about it, and took it to heart.”

It worked.

Keita Bates-Diop (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

“I will always remember that meeting,” Keita Bates-Diop, one of Ohio State’s veteran leaders, the Big Ten Player of the Year and a likely first round pick whenever he does decide to head to the NBA, said. “We were only there for a few hours. He came in and talked to us immediately. He wanted to make sure he saw us and we saw him. He was open, honest. The effort that he made to meet his new guys [stood out].”

“His personality, I see within that,” Bates-Diop added. “The effort to make that plane ride out here, to meet us, it stuck with us and stuck with a lot of the guys.”

Talk to anyone that knows Holtmann and you’ll hear the same things over and over again. He’s authentic. He’s genuine. Down to earth. Introverted. A guy that would be as happy coaching JV as he would be coaching Ohio State.

“He is who he is, one of the most humble guys that I’ve been around,” Johnson said.

Players gravitate to that, particularly given the priority that Holtmann puts on relationships within his program. He doesn’t want his players to be a name on his roster. He doesn’t want his coaching staff to be his employees. He wants them to be a part of his family. That’s why he’s living in a house that isn’t 10 minutes from Ohio State’s campus. That’s why one of his first purchases in the new home was a PS4 and all the necessary games — FIFA, Madden, NBA 2K. He wants his players to feel comfortable coming over and hanging out. He wants to know the wives and children of his assistant coaches, and he wants them to know his players.

That’s what made him so successful at Butler, and it’s what made his decision to leave that program so difficult.

Holtmann was the coach that took that Bulldogs program over in October of 2014, when Brandon Miller took a leave of absence from which he’s never returned. He was the head coach of that program as it was rocked by tragedy after tragedy. Former player Andrew Smith passed away at the age of 25 after a long and public battle with cancer. A month later, Emerson Kampen, a member of Holtmann’s coaching staff, lost his six-month old son to Leigh’s Disease. Another former player, Joel Cornette, died at the age of 35 just just six months after that.

For a man that prides himself on building relationships, leaving a program where those relationships were so strong and built out of overcoming such emotionally devastating moments was not easy.

But the success that he had was evidence that his style of coaching worked. In Holtmann’s three years at Butler, the Bulldogs went 70-31 overall with a 34-20 mark in the Big East. They never won fewer than 22 games in a season, won at least a game in three straight NCAA tournaments and only once finished lower than second in the league; a fourth-place finish in 2016. That was despite taking over a team that went 4-14 in their first season in the Big East the year before he was named the interim coach.

If he was going to replicate that success with the Buckeyes, Holtmann knew that he was going to have to build that same kind of family atmosphere.

But it wasn’t going to be easy, not with the way that the calendar fell.

Holtmann was officially introduced as Ohio State head coach on June 12th, exactly one month before he and his coaching staff would spend three straight weeks on the road for the July Live Period.

Jae’Sean Tate (Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

“You’re trying to establish these relationships, then you’re gone and you feel like you had to start over when you got back,” Holtmann said, and he was doing all of that while trying to trim the fat off of his new roster while bringing in pieces to fill those holes. Freshmen Musa Jallow and Kyle Young committed to Ohio State after Holtmann arrived. He needed guard depth so he added former Michigan walk-on Andrew Dakich, who was ready to enroll at Quinnipiac as a grad transfer. Meanwhile, players that did not fit into the culture that Holtmann wanted to build did not return to the program.

“It did take a while,” Beita-Diop said. “It wasn’t overnight.”

“In the beginning we had to build a chemistry and connection with the coaching staff, and then four or five new guys when the semester started. We had to build that.”

And the way to do that?

Well, it was actually pretty simple: Spend time together.

Holtmann had the team over to his house all the time, whether it was for a big sporting event — the McGregor-Mayweather fight, an NBA game, the Super Bowl — to something as simple as a team function during a big recruiting weekend. Eating lunch with a player. A one-on-one meeting in the basketball offices to learn about a player’s family.

And it’s not just the relationships between the players and the coaches. The team has grown together, too. They’ll spend more time hanging out after practice or on off-days. They went, as a group, to a Kendrick Lamar concert on campus in August. They enjoy being around each other. The friendships aren’t forced.

It wasn’t the easiest road to get here, but here they are.

Ohio State lost by 27 points to Gonzaga on Thanksgiving Day and blew double-digit second half leads to Butler and Clemson in the next six days — but they got through it. Beating Wisconsin by 25 points in the Kohl Center and erasing a 20-point deficit at home against Michigan during the Big Ten’s opening weekend in December helped, as did a stretch where the Buckeyes won 13 out of 14 games, including a nine-game winning streak to start Big Ten play.

Nine months after he secretly flew into Columbus to meet his new team, Holtmann’s Ohio State team is the No. 2 seed in this year’s Big Ten tournament and a potential top four seed when the NCAA tournament bracket is released in 10 days.

And all from a team where the greatest coach in the program’s history was fired because they weren’t going to be good enough.

Elite Class of 2020 point guard to reclassify

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Nico Mannion, a five-star point guard from Arizona, announced on Friday that he will be reclassifying into the Class of 2019.

Mannion was a top 20 player in 2020 but, according to 247 Sports, he will be ranked No. 11 in 2019. The athletic, 6-foot-3 Mannion was long-rumored to be considering a move up a class because of his age. He’ll turn 18 in March of next year, meaning that he’ll arrive on campus the same age as a typical college freshman.

Mannion cut his list to ten schools in June — Duke, Arizona, Villanova, Kansas, USC, UCLA, Oregon, Vanderbilt, Marquette and Utah — but Duke and Arizona appear to be the favorites at this point.

Mannion plays his high school ball for Pinnacle High School in Phoenix and with West Coast Elite on the Under Armour Association circuit. He played for Team USA’s youth ranks, but his mother is Italian and, in June, he was called up to the Italian men’s senior national team, scoring nine points in 29 minutes of a FIBA World Cup Qualifier.

Nebraska to lose junior big man to transfer

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Nebraska’s frontcourt depth took a blow on Thursday as junior big man Jordy Tshimanga informed the program that he will be transferring.

“Jordy called me tonight and asked for his release,” head coach Tim Miles said in a statement that was given to the Lincoln Journal-Star. “The University of Nebraska and our program wish Jordy and his family the best.”

Tshimanga averaged 4.0 points and 4.6 boards in 13 minutes this past season, and a source close to the program told NBC Sports he wasn’t expected to play much more than that this season.

Miles’ has spent the better part of the last two seasons on the hot seat, and this certainly doesn’t make his job easier, but with the talent the Cornhuskers have on their roster, they look like an NCAA tournament team already. They bring back their top four scorers, including former five-star prospect Isaac Copeland and potential first-team all-Big Ten wing James Palmer. With or without Tshimanga, Nebraska has a shot to finish top four in the Big Ten.

North Carolina, UCLA, Michigan State part of Las Vegas event

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — North Carolina, UCLA, Michigan State and Texas will play in an early season basketball tournament in Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas Invitational will include games at campus sites, then the final two rounds on Nov. 22-23 in Las Vegas. North Carolina takes on Texas in one semifinal, and Michigan State faces UCLA in the other.

UNC, UCLA and Michigan State are all top 20 teams in the NBC Sports preseason top 25.

The championship is Nov. 23, and the semifinal losers also play each other that day.

NCAA to study possible effects of widespread legal wagering

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The NCAA plans to study how the expansion of legalized betting could affect college athletics and member schools.

The NCAA announced Thursday it will create a working group of “subject matter experts” to assess areas such as officiating, NCAA rules, federal and state laws, and the use of integrity services. NCAA leadership has already called for federal regulation on sports betting. NCAA rules prohibit sports wagering by athletes and athletic department employees.

The Supreme Court opened the door for states to have legal wagering on sporting events when it struck down a federal ban in May. Schools in some states such as West Virginia, Mississippi and New Jersey are already exploring the possibility of collecting integrity fees in anticipation of legal sports books opening in their states.

“While we certainly respect the Supreme Court’s decision, our position on sports wagering remains,” said Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer. “With this new landscape, we must evolve and expand our long-standing efforts to protect both the integrity of competitions and the well-being of student-athletes.”

The NCAA Board of Governors has already suspended the association’s ban on holding championships in states with legalized sports betting, a policy that only affected Nevada.

“Legalized sports gambling across the country is rather new, but the NCAA and its members have committed significant resources over the years to policy, research and education around sports wagering,” said Joni Comstock, senior vice president of championships and alliances. “With student-athlete well-being as the centerpiece, we will continue to build upon these efforts to assist members as they adapt to legalized sports wagering in their states and regions.”

Arizona releases non-conference schedule

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A trip to Maui, a home date against Baylor and trips to UConn and Alabama highlight Arizona’s non-conference schedule, which the school released Thursday, this season.

Despite losing nearly the entirety of last year’s talented-but-troubled group, Sean Miller still scheduled aggressively. The first test will come the week of Thanksgiving in Hawaii at the Maui Invitational. It’s an extremely competitive field with Duke, Auburn, Gonzaga, Iowa State, Illinois, San Diego State and Xavier. The bracket for the event has yet to be released.

The Wildcats travel to Storrs to face UConn in Dan Hurley’s first season on Dec. 2, and then a week later visit Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

The marquee home game will be Saturday, Dec. 16, when Scott Drew and Baylor come to Tucson.

Here’s the full schedule:

Day Date Opponent Location

Sunday Nov. 11 Cal Poly Tucson, Ariz.

Wednesday Nov. 14 UTEP Tucson, Ariz.

Monday Nov. 19 vs. TBA Lahaina, Hawai’i

Tuesday Nov. 20 vs. TBA Lahaina, Hawai’i

Wednesday Nov. 21 vs. TBA Lahaina, Hawai’i

Wednesday Nov. 28 Texas Southern Tucson, Ariz.

Sunday Dec. 2 at UConn Hartford, Conn.

Thursday Dec. 6 Utah Valley Tucson, Ariz.

Sunday Dec. 9 at Alabama Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Saturday Dec. 15 Baylor Tucson, Ariz.

Wednesday Dec. 19 Montana Tucson, Ariz.

Saturday Dec. 22 UC Davis Tucson, Ariz.