LAHAINA, Hawaii — Chris Holtmann’s first trip to the Rainbow State wasn’t without a little trepidation.
For the first time in 19 years, the Ohio State men’s basketball team is participating in the Maui Invitational, one of the sport’s most prestigious Thanksgiving week events. It’s the sort of trip that Holtmann, upon his arrival in 2017, wanted to add to the team’s schedule in coming seasons. It’s here now, and with the Buckeyes facing an eight-team field in which five teams are listed in the top 25 in the latest Associated Press poll, Holtmann could be forgiven for handing himself the ceremonial surfboard at Sunday morning’s press conference the island of Lanai in the distance wanted to snap and sail.
“It’s a huge field,” said Holtmann. “I think it’s maybe the best field of any tournament of this caliber that I’ve been in around Thanksgiving. It’s a phenomenal field. Great teams and coaches. Different styles. I think it’s going to be a really, really fun tournament to watch if you’re a college basketball fan.”
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Ohio State opens Monday’s tournament with No. 17 San Diego State. At a press conference moderated by ESPN’s Dan Shulman with coaches from all eight teams in the field, both Holtmann and Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher expressed their belief that they will understand their teams better when they leave the island later this week.
Chris Holtmann, other coaches have free throw shooting competitions prior to the Maui Invitational
First, however, it was necessary to take photos, adjust sunglasses and jerseys and try free throws. After each coach answered a few questions from Shulman and posed for group photos, they were paired with a local child for a charity free-throw shooting competition on a portable hoop set up in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Each team had six free throw attempts – three by the kid and three by the coach.
Holtmann made two of his three shots, and his combined team total of four tied him with Louisville’s Kenny Payne and Cincinnati’s Wes Miller for second place. Creighton’s Craig McDermott, whose partner hit all three tries, won with five marks combined. Miller was the only coach to make all three attempts, while Texas Tech’s Mark Adams, who said he will soon have shoulder surgery, took the old-fashioned behind-the-hand approach and benched two of his shots.
It was a carefree atmosphere for a group of coaches, flanked by palm trees and bathed in sunshine, who are now preparing to learn lessons about their teams.
“This week, whether you win or lose, you learn a lot about your team,” McDermott said.
That’s especially true for the Buckeyes, who are 3-0 but are yet to face a team ranked in the top 300 nationally, according to KenPom.com. During the press conference, Holtmann told viewers that his coaches need to remind him before each game how often he plays together against newcomers Roddy Gayle, Felix Okpara, Brice Sensabaugh and Bruce Thornton.
“When you have as many new players as we do, you’re very excited about what’s to come,” said Holtmann. “In an event like this, we’re playing against an older team. You learn a lot this early in the season.”
Since arriving in Maui on Friday, Holtmann said the team has had time to enjoy the beach and area but not taken any significant excursions.
Third-year winger Gene Brown III who missed the first three games in concussion protocol made the trip with his teammates but will be unavailable against the Aztecs as he remains in protocol. It’s unclear when he might return for the Buckeyes.
The last time Ohio State was here, it took a 22-point loss to San Diego State in the first round before they defeated Central Michigan and Villanova to return home with a 2-1 record. Holtmann said he wants to add Maui to the schedule but has reservations about attending the event.
“This is a first class event,” he said. “Playing with it, for me as a coach, I wanted to be there at least once. It is sometimes difficult to get into this event. Aside from the jet lag and the impact it will have on your team when you come back, I had no hesitation.”
This is a problem for the future state of Ohio. Today the focus was on preparing for San Diego State – and maybe some free throws.