COLUMBUS — Most of us will never abandon the intriguing fun of recruiting. Sports fans always love the future more than the present, which is why we think about the NFL Draft during the regular season and baseball free agency during the World Series, and why stories about Ohio State football recruiting are typically more well-read than stories about Ohio State football actually winning games.
But maybe when it comes to Ohio State basketball, recruiting doesn’t matter anymore.
Because what the Buckeyes are doing on National Signing Day isn’t translating into who they’re going to be on the court two or three years later. At least that’s the case so far in the Chris Holtmann era.
Maybe Ohio State can win this way, but their roster building has been haphazard of late. It’s the way of the world in college basketball, we all know that. Transferring is far more common than it used to be, and the Buckeyes are adding transfers in, as they’re losing transfers out.
But some of us, me included, still drop praise or criticism on recruiting classes. My biggest question about Holtmann when he was hired from Butler in the summer of 2017 was whether he’d be able to recruit at the higher level required to win at Ohio State. He has recruited higher-ranked players. He just hasn’t kept them.
In three seasons, Holtmann is 66-34 overall, with a 34-24 Big Ten record. He had an NCAA Tournament-worthy team all three seasons. Well done. There were lulls each of the last two seasons, but the Buckeyes fought hard, never surrendered and bounced back both times.
Holtmann also leaned hard on the past, which is now over. While transfers hit every program, I’d call the Buckeyes losing three transfers since the end of the season beyond the norm. I think it may be an indication of a coach still struggling with how he wants to recruit at a program that is trying to compete at the highest level of college basketball.
In his first season, Holtmann inherited veterans in Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate. They carried the Buckeyes to a surprising second-place Big Ten finish, as Holtmann coached his socks off. The last two seasons, Kaleb and Andre Wesson led the way, with Andre recruited before Holtmann arrived and Kaleb locked in for two years as a verbal commit before he officially signed in Holtmann’s first class. The Wessons won’t be back next year, when the Buckeyes will be a full Holtmann creation.
So here’s what’s happening in building that team.
Holtmann is shooting for national recruits and not keeping them
In Holtmann’s first two full recruiting classes, in 2018 and 2019, he signed five players ranked among the top-105 recruits in the country. Four have transferred:
• Luther Muhammad, No. 79 in 2018
• Jaedon LeDee, No. 103 in 2018
• D.J. Carton, No. 34 in 2019
• Alonzo Gaffney, No. 50 in 2019.
Those four played a total of 127 games at Ohio State, and scored a total of 781 points, an individual average of 6.1 points per game.
What’s coming in from high school looks good, but it hasn’t turned into anything. Only E.J. Liddell, the No. 44 player in 2019, will be around for next season. Those two classes were ranked No. 27 in the nation and No. 14 in the nation, but those rankings mean nothing now.
I researched the best recruits in those classes to find out how many of them transferred. In the Class of 2018, here’s what has happened to the top 103 players in their careers so far. The two OSU players on the list, Muhammad and LeDee, both transferred:
Still at their school: 55
Gone pro or turning pro for this draft: 28
Transferred or in the process of transferring: 20
That’s about a 50 percent rate of keeping guys around for Year 3. But the NBA is more of a draw than the transfer portal. About 20 percent of top-100 players transferring isn’t an excuse for losing both Muhammad and LeDee.
Now, the Class of 2019, which just finished its freshman season. For this, I did the top 50, since Carton, Liddell and Gaffney were all top-50 players:
Still at their school: 34
Announced they’re turning pro: 13
Announced they’re transferring: 3
Yep, only three transfers so far from that top-50, and two are Buckeyes. Whatever the reasons, that’s not a good ratio.
Holtmann isn’t replicating his Butler ways
In his last two full classes at Butler, in 2015 and 2016, Holtmann didn’t sign any top-100 players. But he locked in six players ranked between 107 and 301 in the nation. Of those six, only one transferred, as Joey Bunk, the highest-ranked recruit of the group, left for Indiana after two seasons. The other five remained, and two — Kamar Baldwin and Sean McDermott — were the Bulldogs’ leading scorers this past season.
The OSU recruits in the last two years who would fit this recruiting model are Duane Washington, Justin Ahrens and Ibrahima Diallo. Only Washington projects as a sure-thing primary part of the rotation next year.
Relying on transfers
The Buckeyes will rely on three transfers next season in point guard C.J. Walker (played at Florida State, sat out 2018-19, played last season), forward Justice Sueing (played at Cal, sat out 2019-20, eligible now) and Seth Towns (played at Harvard, immediately eligible as two-year grad transfer).
I wrote recently about the OSU football team supplementing key parts of its roster with transfers. Anyone who is anti-transfer in this day and age is going to be left behind. But the basketball team has reached the point not of adding to a team with transfers, but almost building a team around them. That’s a risky game.
So what’s the future?
Ohio State has two top-150 recruits arriving this season in New York’s Zed Key and Georgia’s Eugene Brown III, but it’s difficult to anticipate their impact. The four OSU transfers are all different, and when Carton left, I advised acting as if he was gone to the NBA. The bottom line is he wouldn’t be around anymore. That’s the kind of mind game you can play with one player. But not four. Something happened in those two recruiting classes where the Buckeyes reached for big-time recruits, but couldn’t stay connected to them. That’s not about blame. It’s about reality.
Maybe, with the prevalence of transfers, being a place that’s attractive to a 14-point scorer from Cal (Sueing); a reliable 8-point per game point guard from Florida State (Walker); and a 16-point scorer from Harvard (Towns) is the sign of a healthy program. But I don’t think you’re ever going to build a Final Four team leaning that much on transfers. And I don’t think that’s what Holtmann wants to do.
He wants to recruit great high school players that develop at Ohio State, benefiting the program while advancing their careers. In this transfer culture, he wants the right mix of talent and continuity. He wants stability supplemented with smart risks that sometimes miss, but sometimes pay off big.
He wants something different than what the Buckeyes got in the Classes of 2018 and 2019, which brought eight players in and saw four already leave. In the meantime, I’d stop paying attention to the OSU basketball recruiting classes. At the moment, that’s not how the Buckeyes are building the program.