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Analysis | Ohio State fired its coach, but the Buckeyes won’t be down for long

Analysis | Ohio State fired its coach, but the Buckeyes won’t be down for long

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

It’s tempting to sort out the reasons holding back any college basketball program that makes a midseason coaching change. Even to dig into whether a school finds itself at a crossroads.

There isn’t much of a point in doing so in the case of Ohio State firing Chris Holtmann this week in the middle of his seventh season. There really isn’t much to prevent the Buckeyes from being really good again really soon.

The school has plenty of money, which means it can command an excellent candidate pool. There are no NCAA sanctions to overcome, and even if there were, Thad Matta demonstrated almost two decades ago those could be shrugged off quickly.

And while the Buckeyes aren’t as good as they’ve grown accustomed to being, they’re not thoroughly outmatched in game after game after game. Tuesday’s 62-54 loss at Wisconsin dropped Ohio State to 14-11. It is 71st in the NET rankings, 67th in the KenPom.com metrics.

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Great? No, certainly not with a defense that has offered diminishing returns for a few seasons now. Awful? Absolutely not.

It unraveled in a hurry on Holtmann, whose teams won at least 20 games in each of his first five seasons en route to four NCAA tournament appearances. (What surely would have been a fifth was wiped out by the pandemic). The Buckeyes were 10-3 last season and ranked No. 24 nationally in early January before losing at home to Purdue on a late Fletcher Loyer three-pointer.

And then they lost. And lost. And mostly lost.

They went 6-16 to end last season starting with that Purdue stumble, with half of the wins coming during a surprise run to the Big Ten semifinals. They dropped nine of their last 11 this season before Holtmann’s dismissal.

The Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy astutely points out that losing Malaki Branham two seasons ago and Brice Sensabaugh last year as unanticipated one-and-dones set the Buckeyes back. But there’s also a case to be made Holtmann — who made three NCAA tournaments in as many years at Butler before coming to Columbus — was too reliant on a traditional program-building method at the wrong time.

Ohio State boasted deep, well-regarded freshman classes the past two seasons, and historically that’s the route to take. Yet between the obliteration of strict transfer rules and the proliferation of 22- and 23-year-olds in the sport thanks to the NCAA’s covid-era eligibility waiver, there’s never been a worse time for a high-major coach to count on freshmen flourishing as part of a cohesive unit and administrative patience in case they don’t.

Holtmann will be fine, both financially (he has a $12.8 million buyout coming his way) and professionally (a guy who is 207-117 with eight NCAA tournament-worthy teams in 10 seasons in the Big East and Big Ten will not lack for future opportunities).

And Ohio State will be back, probably sooner than most expect. Jim O’Brien took over a 10-17 team in 1997 and had the Buckeyes in the Final Four within two years (granted, that appearance was vacated as part of an NCAA case). Matta required three years to make the national title game after O’Brien was fired in 2004. And Holtmann transformed a 17-15 team into a No. 5 seed in his first season at Ohio State.

The Buckeyes made a change, but are they at a true pivot point as a program? It doesn’t seem likely.

Red Storm has cloudy outlook

St. John’s seemed to be following the script in the first half of the season. A Red Storm restoration — certainly to Big East relevance, maybe more — was the expectation when Rick Pitino took over the program last spring. And at 12-4 overall after beating Providence on Jan. 10, that’s exactly what was happening.

Since then, St. John’s has dropped seven of nine. It is 6-8 in the Big East, “good” for ninth place in the 11-team league. That’s one spot behind last season’s finish.

In truth, the Red Storm is better than that bunch was, especially at the offensive end. And there’s a good chance St. John’s would be more firmly entrenched in the middle of the conference pack if it had played three or four games against Big East bottomfeeders Georgetown and DePaul to this point rather than one.

And therein lies one of the biggest problems for Pitino’s team heading into the closing stretch.

St. John’s has little to gain and a whole lot to lose in half of its remaining games: Home and away with Georgetown (NET: 198) and March 5 at DePaul (NET: 321).

The trip to Georgetown will probably end up as a Quadrant 3 game. The other two are on track to be Quadrant 4 games, the lowest tier on the NCAA’s team sheets. None of them will do anything good besides improve the Red Storm’s Big East tournament seeding.

What St. John’s needs now is opportunities to improve its 2-9 record in Quadrant 1 games, and it probably has two (Feb. 25 at home against Creighton and Feb. 28 at Butler) remaining before the Big East tournament. Sunday’s home game with Seton Hall will land in Quad 2 or Quad 3, depending on whether the Pirates can remain a top-75 team.

With a modest set of top-tier victories to begin with (at 13-11 Villanova and against edge-of-the-field Utah on a neutral court), St. John’s has a lot of work in front of it. The more it can accomplish in the few significant opportunities it has left, the less it will require a deep run in New York next month.

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Kevin Johnson had all kinds of reasons to want the Southern University head coaching job when it opened last year. The biggest might have been family.

There may not have been a better moment to encapsulate how intertwined Johnson’s roots are with the Baton Rouge school than when he spotted his 84-year-old mother, Lelia Jones Johnson — a retired schoolteacher, a 1963 Southern grad and with a “mind as sharp as ever,” Johnson said — in the crowd at Saturday’s game against Alabama A&M.

“She’s sitting next to my brother [Rodney], my cousin and her godson — all Southern University grads,” Kevin Johnson marveled. “When I looked up there, I just said, ‘Wow.’ Here’s my family, people that are closest to me in the world, and they’re all Southern grads.”

Johnson, who took classes at Southern in the summer of 1985 when he was back home from Texas-Pan American, is building his own legacy at the school as well.

The Jaguars (15-9) enter Saturday’s trip to Prairie View A&M tied atop the Southwestern Athletic Conference and have won six in a row. They’re six games above .500 for the first time since finishing 22-13 in 2015-16, the last time the program reached the NCAA tournament.

Southern made an impression in nonconference play, winning at UNLV in the first week of the season. The Jaguars later edged Mississippi State on Dec. 3, the program’s first victory over a ranked foe since a 1993 NCAA tournament upset of Georgia Tech.

But far more important to Johnson was instilling a sense of togetherness, which has been a defining trait of both the team’s best moments and worst this season.

“In the two conference games that we lost, we did not do that down the stretch at Bethune-Cookman, so we lose an overtime game there, and then we lose on the road at Grambling because we were totally separated through the second half of that game,” Johnson said. “Sometimes, these are lessons you have to learn on the floor, and I tell them every day, ‘There are no limits to what you can achieve if you stay together,’ and that’s the struggle.”

While Southern has 11 newcomers, Johnson credits holdovers such as guard Dre’Shawn Allen, center Jalen Reynolds and twin forwards Jariyon and JaRonn Wilkens for fostering cohesiveness in complementary roles.

A major addition was junior Tai’Reon Joseph, who leads the SWAC with 20.5 points per game. But the guard has not played in the past three games for undisclosed reasons, and his status moving forward is uncertain.

Yet even without him, the Jaguars have rolled along thanks to other players new to the program. Brandon Davis, a superb all-around player on Loyola New Orleans’ NAIA title team two years ago, is averaging 12.1 points. Stephen F. Austin transfer Derrick Tezeno delivers toughness and a team-high 5.2 rebounds a game at 6 feet 5 and 205 pounds.

Meanwhile, junior college transfer Tidjiane Dioumassi leads the SWAC with 5.2 assists per game, emerging as the ace point guard Johnson sought when he got the job.

“Those three guys have been meeting the expectations that we had coming in,” Johnson said. “But it’s like when we were watching film yesterday: You guys aren’t done. Let’s keep growing and keep getting better.”

With a defense that ranks 10th nationally in turnover percentage according to KenPom.com, Southern appears well equipped to remain in contention in a league that more than most tilts toward teams that can reliably get stops. But there remains plenty of season left, and more work to come.

Still, there’s some fulfillment for Johnson because of the early returns and the chance to contribute to a school that means so much to his family.

“We’ve had people say things like, ‘We’re so excited to come to the games now,’ and that makes you feel good a little bit,” Johnson said. “And then we still have people who say: ‘You know what? We lost to Grambling.’ We get both sides of it. The job for me is to kind of stay focused on what’s ahead and what’s in front of me.”

New Mexico at San Diego State (Friday, 10, Fox Sports 1): The host Aztecs (19-6, 8-4 Mountain West) are coming off one of the most brilliant defensive stretches of any game this season. San Diego State defeated Colorado State, 71-55, on Tuesday, and it did so by winning the second half 41-11 and limiting the Rams to three points in the final 11:27. Now the Aztecs get a chance to pay back the Lobos (20-5, 8-4) for an 88-70 loss last month in Albuquerque.

Texas Tech at Iowa State (Saturday, noon): The visiting Red Raiders (18-6, 7-4 Big 12) just hammered Kansas by 29 on Monday and now have to contend with the stingy Cyclones (19-5, 8-3) at Hilton Coliseum. Iowa State has won six of seven and is off to its best Big 12 start since 2000-01, and it also carries a 14-0 record at home into the weekend.

Wake Forest at Virginia (Saturday, noon, ESPN2): Virginia is where Wake Forest would like to be — safely inside the projected NCAA tournament field. Reece Beekman and the Cavaliers (19-6, 10-4 ACC) had an eight-game winning streak end Tuesday with a loss to Pitt, and their last setback before that was a 66-47 defeat at Wake Forest on Jan. 13. Hunter Sallis scored 21 points that night for the Demon Deacons (16-8, 8-5), who really need at least one Quadrant 1 victory on their résumé. This would provide it.

Marquette at Connecticut (Saturday, 3, Fox): The Big East crammed both Marquette-Connecticut games into the final month of the regular season, so this is just the first round between the Tyler Kolek-led Golden Eagles (19-5, 10-3) and a Huskies team led by Tristen Newton. That point guard matchup will be a delight as two sizzling squads go at it. Connecticut (23-2, 13-1) has won 13 in a row, the longest streak in Division I, while Marquette has taken its past eight.

Kentucky at Auburn (Saturday, 6, ESPN): Know what isn’t easy this season? Playing at Auburn. The Tigers (20-5, 9-3 SEC) are undefeated in 13 home games, and the past four home outings for Johni Broome and Co. have seen Auburn pulverize Mississippi (by 23), Vanderbilt (by 27), Alabama (by 18) and a 21-4 South Carolina bunch by 40. Enter Kentucky (17-7, 7-4), which can score with just about anyone but is vulnerable to explosive offenses such as the Tigers’.

Florida Atlantic at South Florida (Sunday, Noon, ESPN): It might be the game of the year in the American Athletic. Florida Atlantic (20-5, 10-2) has taken a couple of close losses in league play, but the Owls (with the bulk of their Final Four cast back) have largely lived up to expectations in their new conference. South Florida (18-5, 11-1) has won 10 in a row under first-year coach Amir Abdur-Rahim thanks in part to top scorer Chris Youngblood (14.7 ppg), who followed Abdur-Rahim from Kennesaw State. The Bulls can tie a school record for conference victories in a season (set in 2012, when they last made the NCAA tournament) with one more win.

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