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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.

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.