Photo by Travis Ellison
So many assists
Players, coaches and staff were there for each other, navigating heartaches and holidays inside a bubble.
On Christmas Eve, a night Ohio State basketball players usually spend with family, Coach Chris Holtmann invited the entire team to his home.
Instead of unwrapping presents with loved ones, the Buckeyes opened NCAA-compliant gifts from the coaching staff. They sat in Holtmann’s basement and made a game of trying to match baby and toddler pictures, sent by players’ families, to the faces of their teammates.
In a sport in which making proper and timely substitutions is critical to success, Holtmann was doing the best he could to give his players a decent Christmas. The threat of the global pandemic and the need to isolate the team as much as possible prevented players from returning home for the holidays. Holtmann’s athletes appreciated his novel holiday celebration.
“It was super fun, a once-in-a-lifetime experience — unless we have to do it again next year,” says guard Duane Washington Jr. “We just tried to stay in the moment. If you think about it too much, you psych yourself out. It was keeping focused, keeping your mind occupied.”
The men’s basketball season was all about staying in the moment. The specter of COVID-19 made it virtually impossible to look too far ahead. Last fall, a basketball season wasn’t even assured because of health and safety concerns.
But Ohio State enjoyed a strong regular season and reached the Big Ten title game before losing in the opening round of the NCAA tournament to Oral Roberts. The early exit stung the program, and yet the Buckeyes exceeded preseason expectations on several levels. The team wasn’t even ranked in the top 20 before the campaign tipped off Nov. 25. They finished 21–10 overall and 12–8 in the conference.
“We owned the fact we didn’t perform like we wanted to in the NCAA tournament,” Holtmann says of his final address to his players. “But we also acknowledged what we did between the end of the regular season and the end of the conference tournament — and it was significant.”
Holtmann was most proud of the maturity his group demonstrated in the face of unprecedented circumstances. His players were asked to live like hermits when they weren’t at the gym or attending rare in-person classes.
The players bought into the message of sacrifice for the sake of safety, limiting their exposures with the outside world. It meant not going to dinner or out with friends, Washington says. In some cases, it also meant not hugging parents after games.
“One misstep by one of us could cause setbacks for all of us,” says David Egelhoff ’01, ’05 MA, the Buckeyes’ director of basketball operations. “We had Zoom meetings with parents, and they bought in, just as our players did.”
The Buckeyes had only one game canceled and one other postponed. Neither was the result of the Buckeyes being unable to play.
“As a group, we decided we needed to stay connected to one another as a family and take all the precautions,” Washington says. “I think that’s why we had a pretty good year.”
The reward was a nice run through the Big Ten tournament. The Buckeyes defeated Minnesota, Purdue and Michigan before losing to Illinois, 91–88, in overtime of the championship game.
“It was a phenomenal experience,” Holtmann says. “The players made it happen because they did everything possible to make it happen.”
Three days after the NCAA tournament loss, Holtmann made one final demand of his players: Go spend a few days with their families.
About the author
Tom Reed is a sports writer for the DK Pittsburgh Sports website and host of the 66-to-87 Podcast. He’s spent 30 years writing sports for The Athletic magazine and metro newspapers in Ohio.