COLUMBUS, Ohio — This is where Ohio State expects to be.
For the largest and most financially solvent men's basketball program in the state, the NCAA Tournament is usually the minimum goal in most years, and failing to get there even once can bring about the wrath of both the fanbase and higher-ups. Indeed, it's a big reason why Thad Matta -- the winningest head coach in OSU history -- is no longer there.
RELATED: More OSU coverage from WKYC
So on the surface, it's a good thing that the Buckeyes are back in the "Big Dance," taking on Loyola-Chicago in the first round Friday afternoon. But in Columbus, it's about more than just getting there. You have to deliver, too.
And this has some wondering if Chris Holtmann, Matta's successor, is on the hot seat as the tourney approaches.
Let's provide some context. Currently in his fifth season at Ohio State, Holtmann has won 106 games and made the tournament each year (save for 2020, when the event was wiped out by COVID-19). But his Buckeyes have also developed a knack for wilting under the bright lights of "March Madness," and have thus far failed to win a Big Ten title or get past the national tournament's second round.
In the modern era of the NCAA tournament, no OSU coach has a better track record than Matta: five Sweet 16s, three Elite Eights, two Final Fours. Names like Oden, Turner, Sullinger, and Craft live forever in the hearts and minds of Buckeye Nation, and Thad forever secured his place in Ohio basketball lore by taking the program to a place it hadn't been in decades, among the best in the game.
But even the best in their profession can begin to slip, and as his health declined following a botched surgery, Matta's fortunes both on and off the court declined with it. The recruiting well dried up, and in 2016 Ohio State missed the tournament for just the second time in 11 years. A disastrous 17-15 campaign without even an NIT bid followed. Despite a public vote of confidence at season's end, athletic director Gene Smith controversially released Matta more than two months later.
"It's time," Smith said throughout a joint press conference.
It was a sentiment many agreed with, even if they weren't thrilled with how Thad's ouster was handled.
Enter Holtmann, a young-but-experienced coach who had just taken Butler to the Sweet 16. Since taking over, he has been tasked with two things: Improving recruiting and improving the product on the court.
So how do the results look? So far, any gains look... marginal, at best.
Let's start with when things seemed at their best: Holtmann's first season with the Buckeyes in 2017-18. With a squad mostly composed of holdovers from the Matta decline, Ohio State won 25 games and finished a surprising second in the Big Ten. They earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament before falling to Gonzaga in the second round.
It was certainly a good first impression, but some troubling trends would also bubble up as the calendar turned from February to March. Ranked as high as eighth in the country, the Buckeyes lost back-to-back games to underdog teams and were eventually upset by Penn State in the Big Ten quarterfinals. This would repeat itself the following year, when OSU dropped six of eight to end the regular season, bowed out in the conference quarters, then promptly saw its NCAA Tournament end in the first weekend as an 11-seed.
The pandemic ruined any hopes the Bucks might have had in 2020. Things seemed to be looking up the next season as Holtmann products E.J. Liddell and Duane Washington Jr. led the team to a No. 4 ranking in late February. What happened next? A roller coaster which included a four-game losing streak, a recovery with a run to the Big Ten championship, and then a shocking first-round collapse against 15th-seeded Oral Roberts.
Which brings us to the present, in a season where it seems like that humiliating loss has hung over the team throughout. Yet again, the same script seems to be playing out on the screen: Wins over teams like Duke and Wisconsin lift Ohio State to as high as 13th in the rankings, but losses down the stretch to also-rans like Maryland and Nebraska coupled with another Big Ten tourney defeat to Penn State have the Buckeyes down to the seventh seed in the NCAA's South region, with many prognosticators feeling like No. 10 Loyola is the real favorite.
This likely isn't where the OSU administration imagined the program would be, certainly not when they sent Matta packing five years ago. As expected, the finger has been pointed at Holtmann, whose late-game adjustments have been called into question.
Another issue? While the recruiting has gotten better with players like Liddell and Malaki Branham, it hasn't even come close to the level it was at during Matta's glory days, when five-star recruits were flocking to Columbus. In fact, according to 247sports, Holtmann has yet to land a single five-star prospect since his arrival.
247 has a list of the Buckeyes' 67 top prospects out of high school since 2003, the year before Matta took over the program. The list sports several players who have played key roles under Holtmann, such as Liddell, Washington, Branham, and Kyle Young. However, 10 Matta recruits top the list before Holtmann finally comes in at No. 11 with DJ Carton, and two four-star Matta prospects -- Keita Bates-Diop and Jae'Sean Tate -- were the best players on what remains Holtmann's best team from 2017-18. What's more, Carton was among several Holtmann finds such as Alonzo Gaffney and Luther Muhammed, who later transferred out.
All this brings us back to our initial question. If the Buckeyes are merely a first-weekend tournament team and have yet to gain much of an edge in recruiting, does this mean Chris Holtmann is, or at least should be, on the hot seat? Well, it's not that simple, and there are a few things working in his favor.
The first, and perhaps most important, is that Gene Smith doesn't seem inclined to make a change. In responding to a recent column from Cleveland.com's Doug Lesmerises, the OSU AD declared the program to be "in great hands" under Holtmann's leadership, although we know even a public "vote of confidence" often can't save a coach in the end (see Matta, Thad).
The second is the issue of Holtmann's contract, which runs through 2025 and pays about $3 million a year. That means Ohio State would owe Holtmann roughly $9 million if they were to fire him right now, and while the school could almost certainly afford that price tag, it's seems unlikely they would want to do so unless it was absolutely necessary.
The third is, ironically, recruiting. Although Holtmann's early results on the trail have been tepid, 247Sports ranks his 2022 class as the fifth-best in the country, with Georgia's Bruce Thornton and Missouri's Felix Okpara highlighting a slate of four top 100 players. In addition, his two 2023 commits put that class fifth as well, and it could be unwise to throw all that potential into flux with a coaching change.
Finally, the fourth reason, which isn't always easy to accept: While Ohio State is still the best basketball school in the Buckeye State (with respect to Cincinnati, Xavier, and Dayton), it will never be a "basketball school." Football is king in Columbus, and while fans certainly want the basketball team to do well, the expectations simply aren't there for Holtmann like they are for Ryan Day.
That's what made Thad Matta's run at Ohio State so special, and why Gene Smith's decision to part ways with him was so significant. Even if the move was justified, it sent a message that whoever came next would have to raise a bar that had been set incredibly high. So far, Holtmann has not fully done that, and it appears the team may even ben stuck in neutral.
Of course, the Buckeyes could make all this hot seat chatter disappear with a good old-fashioned tournament run. "March Madness" has seen stranger things, after all.