Fair or not (and I don't see why not), the successes and failures of Archie Miller, Brad Underwood, and Chris Holtmann will be benchmarked against each other for as long as they remain in the Big Ten. Not only did they all enter the conference at the same time, but they each went to schools that—while not precisely even—have the capacity to be both dominant and afterthoughts. It's hard to imagine a world in which Oregon State runs away with the Pac-12 title, or in which Duke is toiling in the cellar of the ACC. But each of Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio State have done all of those things (in the Big Ten) in the KenPom Era (since 2002). Sure, Illinois has done a bit more toiling of late, but the potential for greatness remains.
And I'm sure the fanbases of each of these schools believes their new coach will take them to the promised land of Big Ten titles and high NCAA Tournament seeds. That too, is possible, and in fact we saw it in Year One of the KenPom Era, in which Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio State (OK, and Wisconsin) finished in a four-way tie for the Big Ten championship.
However, it probably won't. More than likely, at least one of these coaches will come up short in that regard. And the school will go through the process yet again, backing up the TV Money Truck to lure the next Savior Coach to campus. And one of these three coaches will likely move down a tier, hoping for another shot at Power Six basketball.
But I don't think Chris Holtmann is going to fail.
The computers are certainly in love. Holtmann's Buckeyes entered the season a kenpom 78, and have moved all the way up to 48. That's much, much better than either Miller or Underwood have achieved thus far.
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Then again, we're talking about a small sample of games, and smaller still sample of games against teams that are plausibly in the universe of power conference-level quality. So, I'm not going to throw stones at Indiana's Friday Night Massacre at the hands of Indiana State (which has since gone on to beat just one Division I team—Air Force), but rather to praise Holtmann.
What's changed from last year? It's no secret the Buckeyes lost a fair amount from last season. They lost a high level point guard (JaQuan Lyle), a high-level finisher, rim protector, and rebounder (Trevor Thompson), and a capable outside shooter (Marc Loving). Those are all very valuable items for a college basketball team—one wonders how the Buckeyes were so lousy last season.
The short answer is defense. The offense was mostly fine, if not spectacular, but the defense ranked a putrid 13th in conference play on a per possession basis. This season, the defense is actually a point of strength, ranking as a top-50 unit at the time of writing.
So what's different on that end? Well, to be fair some of that is due to personnel. Out last year due to injury, Keita Bates-Diop is proving to be the very epitome of the modern "3 and D" player the NBA is so fond of these days. Not only is he an excellent defender on the perimeter, but he also defends the post and rebound extremely well. Against Michigan, KBD was mostly tasked with guarding Duncan Robinson. His statline: 1-7, 3 points, and 2 assists in 30 minutes. The one shot he made was when Musa Jallow was guarding him, and just didn't track him on a baseline cut.
But Diop's contributions go well beyond faceguarding his man. Michigan is an outstanding passing team that creates great spacing, and Beilein has a great talent like Mo Wagner at his disposal. Here, Wagner makes a fantastic ball reversal pass that puts the Buckeyes in scramble mode. At this point, all the defense can do is try to close out hard without getting blown by. It's a tough task. But Diop's length disrupts a passing lane, and all the Wolverines get out of Wagner's skill is a breakaway dunk for Jae'Sean Tate.
And then there's his versatility. In this game, he was tasked with guarding a spot-up specialist, an NBA-caliber big, and on this possession, he switches onto Michigan's primary creator, Charles Matthews, and handles his efforts easily.
KBD is not just a physical specimen, however, he's also a very intelligent player. He never forgets the scouting report and he's not only able to defend his man to it, but also able to provide help when needed. Here, he fights through a couple of screens and still has time to show on a backcut. Oh, and he collects the rebound for good measure.
KBD excels, but the entire team appears to have a higher defensive IQ this season. For example, when it comes to defending the ball screen, the Buckeyes are generally very willing to switch defenders. Switching is a very convenient tactic in that it doesn't give up the open 3 that going under the screen allows, and it doesn't permit the driving lane that going around the screen generally allows. The primary disadvantage is you probably have a mismatch somewhere. But for most of the players on the floor, this is not a big deal. KBD and Tate can switch their assignments for a few seconds and there is not going to be an instant scoring opportunity.
But when the 270-pound Kaleb Wesson is involved, switching is not an option. In those instances, Wesson provided a hard hedge to disrupt the action.
Wesson is young and still adjusting to the college game, so one cannot expect him to throw Michigan's guards into disarray. But OSU's help defenders stand ready to jump into the passing lanes while Wesson recovers. This only works if all five players on the floor are not only tracking their assignment, but basically every other offensive player as well. Oh, and they have to keep tracking of when the team is switching screens, and when it is hedging.
And it's really that mentality that seems to be changed. Helpside defense for Ohio State is a real point of strength for this team. In all the film I've watched of the Buckeyes this season, it's frames like this that impress me the most.
Every single Buckeye has eyes on the ball and his man. This is a constant theme in OSU's defense this season, where most of the important stuff is happening away from the ball. Yes, it helps to have an all-league defender like KBD, but there are still four other players on the court to be accounted for.
There's still plenty of basketball to be played, both in this season and throughout Holtmann's tenure in Columbus. Maybe Ohio State's lack of a true point guard will sink them this year. Maybe Wesson proves to be too raw against the likes of Nick Ward and Isaac Haas, and the Buckeyes have no one else with sufficient size. Maybe this offense stops shooting 56 percent on two-pointers, despite taking a relatively large number of them. Maybe it all falls apart when KBD leaves campus, or if Holtmann proves to be unable to recruit sufficient talent to Columbus. There are a lot of unknowns, and the smart take is that it's way to early to start grading hires with any degree of accuracy.
But fortune favors the bold. And I think this is a 6-row deep homer of a hire. Hopefully, the Buckeyes' improvement can continue to be a bright storyline in what's shaping up to be a dismal Big Ten season.