The 2019-20 Ohio State men’s basketball season is set to get underway Thursday with the beginning of preseason practice. On Tuesday, head coach Chris Holtmann and the players held their annual media day to preview a team that will enter the season with high expectations with the return of several key contributors and a freshmen class that ranks among the best in the country.
“We’re really excited about it,” Holtmann said of the start of practice. “I can’t wait to get running with this group, team number 121 in the history of Ohio State basketball.”
Holtmann began his press conference by addressing the current health of his team. He said three players — Justin Ahrens, Musa Jallow and E.J. Liddell — are currently “on the mend” from injuries and will not begin practice at full strength. Ahrens has been dealing with a back injury throughout the offseason, and Holtmann said both Jallow and Liddell are nursing lower leg injuries.
Holtmann said he anticipates Ahrens and Liddell being back at some point in the preseason. With Jallow, Holtmann said it will be taken “week by week depending on how he continues to progress,” but added, “He’s going to be out for a while.”
In addressing the wide range of expectations that have been placed on Ohio State, Holtmann chose to focus only on what his team can control, starting with the beginning of preseason practice.
“More than anything, focus on the day-to-day,” Holtmann said. “I think we’ll get what we earn, whatever that looks like. I think that’s the biggest thing for us, to focus on the day-to-day and the process of getting better and not put too much thought into what’s said — good or bad — about us, what’s written, good or bad, what’s projected … We’re just trying to focus on the day-to-day and improving, and that’s going to start on Thursday.”
Ohio State’s highly-touted freshmen class of point guard D.J. Carton, forwards Alonzo Gaffney and E.J. Liddell, and center Ibrahima Diallo will receive a lot of the attention the team gets this preseason, both for their talent and the unknowns surrounding how they will factor into the team’s rotation early on.
Holtmann said each player has had their moments in flashing their potential this offseason, but more than anything, they are still learning what it takes to play college basketball at the highest level.
“I think they’re getting in better shape. They figured out what college basketball conditioning and being in shape looks like,” Holtmann said. “I think that’s been a process for them, and that’ll be an ongoing process. With E.J. being out, we’ll have to expedite that (process) as quickly as we can when he returns.”
With the loss of both point guards from a year ago in C.J. Jackson and Keyshawn Woods, Carton figures to have the quickest route to significant minutes alongside Florida State transfer C.J. Walker, who was with the team last season but had to sit out due to NCAA transfer rules.
“Both guys bring a lot of really good things,” Holtmann said of the two guards. “C.J. is tough and tough-minded and, I think, has a really good understanding of playing to win and what that looks like … D.J. adds a dynamic of being able to get in the paint and provide an opportunity to attack in transition.”
Asked about the depth this team appears to have, something that has been an issue the past two seasons for Holtmann, he said “time will tell” on how the rotations shake out.
“Assuming we’re going to be at full strength, I think we’ll continue to play and look at different lineups. Lineups that have four guards, lineups that have two interior guys. We’ll continue to look at different lineups based on what our roster looks like and, really, what these first five weeks of practice look like.
“You’ve heard me say it before, that ‘old wins in college basketball,’ mature talent wins in college basketball. And by mature, I’m not necessarily saying age, because that’s not always the case. But mature talent wins consistently at the highest level of college basketball, so it’s our job to get our group as mature as quickly as possible.”
The return of Kaleb Wesson, who tested the NBA waters this offseason before deciding to return for his junior season, is certainly a boost for Holtmann’s team. Wesson averaged 14.6 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last season and figures to be on the shortlist of players contending for the Big Ten Player of the Year award this season.
Wesson spent the offseason transforming his body and looks to be in fantastic shape, checking in at 255 pounds Tuesday after finishing last season at 289 pounds.
“Kaleb looks great,” Holtmann said of Wesson. “He’s worked really hard at (getting in better shape). I think he’s shown tremendous discipline in terms of what he wanted his body to look like. I think the challenge for him will be to continue to move in that direction as we get throughout the season.”
Two sophomores — Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington Jr. — played significant roles for the Buckeyes last season as freshmen, and their up-and-down play mirrored the team’s inconsistent results. Holtmann said whether Muhammad and Washington have grown from their unsteady play last season is one of the more important questions surrounding his team.
“I think you could look at their growth being as important as anything with our team right now,” Holtmann said. “Are they going to learn from their freshman year, where they had some really good moments and some moments where they struggled? Can we, as a coaching staff, get them to take some of those lessons that they learned and take the next step?”
Asked if he felt this team is the most talented he has coached in his career, Holtmann said it was too early to make that assessment.
“I’m excited to coach this team. I think we have a long ways to go, and what that’s going to look like two months from now, I don’t know,” he said.