Court Report: Chris Holtmann on Ohio State's 10-1 start and why Duke-Texas Tech could be December's best game

Ohio State won on Tuesday night, beating Youngstown State and improving its record to 10-1. Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann is doing it again. He's collectively got his players overachieving and is in the coach-of-the-year conversation. 

Last season, his first at Ohio State, just getting to the NIT would have been a triumph. Instead Ohio State tied for second in the Big Ten, earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament and even won its first-round game to finish with 25 wins. After the losses of Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop, seniors Jae'Sean Tate, Andrew Dakich and Kam Williams, and the departure of transfer Micah Potter, expectation levels were again reduced.

Who would reasonably expect this team to be a top-25 outfit this season? And yet it's showing out as just that. The Buckeyes are ranked No. 15 in the AP Top 25, have road wins over Cincinnati and Creighton and have an average margin of victory of 19.6 points. 

The nonconference schedule hasn't been terrific but it also hasn't been as easy as plenty of other major-conference teams'. Holtmann is well on his way to a sixth straight season of 21 wins or more, something he's done across three schools: Gardner-Webb, Butler and OSU. 

The Buckeyes have dangled off the radar through the first seven weeks of the season, but they have a good opportunity on a national stage this weekend: UCLA awaits on Saturday afternoon in Chicago at the CBS Sports Classic. If the No. 15 Buckeyes beat the Bruins, the 11-1 record would match Holtmann's personal best for most wins to start a season. 

"The ranking is the ranking and I don't know what to make of that and don't really care." Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann

But, in typical Holtmann fashion, he's swatting away as much praise and flattery as possible at this point on the calendar. 

"The ranking is the ranking and I don't know what to make of that and don't really care," Holtmann told CBS Sports on Tuesday night. "I think the sample size is really too small right now."

But beating UCLA would mean three quad-one victories for Ohio State, which is a solid pre-Christmas showing. Question is, can OSU handle UCLA's talent? Though Ohio State was primarily prepping in recent days for Youngstown State, Holtmann's seen a bit of Bruins tape, too. 

"They're good and long and present real matchup issues," Holtmann said. "They've got some youth as well, but Kris Wilkes is fantastic -- they're good." 

Last season, one of the worst losses Ohio State took was in the CBS Sports Classic: UNC dismantled the Buckeyes, 86-72. This was right after Carolina took one of its most surprising losses of the Roy Williams era. 

"It was nice of Wofford to win at UNC right before we played them," Holtmann joked. "We appreciated that." 

And now UCLA, which faces a tough game at Cincinnati on Wednesday night, is tottering after losing 74-72 at home to a good Belmont team on Saturday. Holtmann praised Alford in wake of the defeat. 

"I give Steve a ton of credit for scheduling that game after finals," Holtmann said. "Any chance I get, I'm picking (Belmont coach) Rick Byrd's brain on coaching stuff." 

But if there's one true concern for Holtmann and his team at the moment, it's their inability to play with consistency at the start of games. 

"We have not played well in our last couple of games," Holtmann said. "As a coach, you're only as good as you're playing. I still think we're, in all honestly, we're not sure how the teams that we've beaten, we're not sure [yet] how good those teams are. All I can go off of right now is the fact that we're not playing well. We were down 14-2 to Youngstown State (on Tuesday). We're down at half against Bucknell. Some of that is we don't necessarily have the ability right now to just overwhelm teams." 

Part of this is Ohio State's youth. Holtmann has played seven freshmen and sophomores including Kyle Young, who had nine DNPs last season, but is now in the starting lineup. Sophomore Kaleb Wesson (16.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg) has been the team's only reliable game-over-game player. The Buckeyes haven't looked like the best team in the Big Ten, but the league is looking upgraded from a season ago and OSU still shapes as one of the five best in the conference.  

So the Buckeyes are a win against UCLA and a home victory over High Point from becoming 12-1. That's not unordinary for the school; it's something that happened four times in 13 seasons under Thad Matta -- a reminder of how good/great the program was during his tenure.

And quite possibly a glimpse into how relevant and consistent it will be going forward under Holtmann. 

Duke-Texas Tech sets up as a special rarity

It's not every season that college basketball is lucky enough to have the best offensive team square off against the best defensive team. We might look back and discover that's exactly what will have played out on Dec. 20. Madison Square Garden is the stage for Duke vs. Texas Tech on Thursday. It's a terrific pre-Christmas gift for college basketball and a game that's become a lot more enticing than originally expected.

Technically, it's the No. 1 defense vs. the No. 2 offense. TTU recently overtook Michigan at No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom. Duke is No. 2, to Gonzaga, but the margins are slim. The Blue Devils should get a real challenge here, as they just played Princeton (and won, 101-50) on Tuesday night. Quick turnaround for a quick flight up to New York, where they'll face one of the toughest teams in college basketball. 

chris-beard.jpg
Chris Beard has Texas Tech off to a 10-0 start this season. USATSI

Texas Tech, which made the Elite Eight last season, is 10-0 and off to the second-best start in school history; it was 12-0 back in 1929-1930! After losing a lot from last season's squad -- including a top-15 draft pick and one of the best players in program history -- supposition had the Red Raiders floating back to the middle of the Big 12. Wrong. 

This should be the toughest test yet for Duke's athletic freshmen. Who will guard Zion Williamson? Will RJ Barrett be stymied by Tech's relentless perimeter D? According to Jordan Sperber, a stats-and-video guru who's worked on D-I staffs, Tech is yet to allow 1.0 points per possession in a game this season. That's so impressive. And Duke? It's worst game on offense is better than the other 352 teams' worst game on offense at this point in the year. Dynamite matchup in Manhattan on Thursday. Could very well factor into No. 1 seed conversation come March.

Billy Donovan not returning to college hoops soon

The two NBA-affiliated names that have previously/potentially been viewed as college basketball coaching candidates for 2019 are Fred Hoiberg and, to a lesser degree, Billy Donovan. Hoiberg's firing from the Bulls earlier this month will almost certainly make him a hot commodity. But we now know that Donovan isn't leaving the pros any time soon. Oklahoma City picked up his option for 2019-20, which will exhaust his initial five-year contract he signed after leaving the University of Florida in 2015. 

And if anything, Donovan could prove to be more Brad Stevens than Hoiberg. Only Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich and Stevens have won a higher percentage of games with their respective teams since Donovan (169-106 at OKC) got to the NBA. The Thunder are 19-10, third in the Western Conference, and Donovan's on pace to make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. 

Athletic directors in search of a splashy hire come March will need to look elsewhere.

St. John's is 10-0 and still can't break into the polls

It's a small oddity that a power-conference team can get to an undefeated record, with a double-digit win total, and still not find itself ranked. But that's where 10-0 St. John's -- off to its best start since 1982-83 -- is at the moment. And it's not as though St. John's has been a surprise squad. It was pegged as a top-three team in the Big East in the preseason and generally accepted as a top-50 (at worst) crew in college hoops back in early November.

But thanks to a terrible nonconference schedule (Bowling Green, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Mount St. Mary's, Wagner, Loyola-Maryland), the Johnnies are still on the outside looking in and figure to stay there until Dec. 31 at the earliest. The next two games come at home against St. Francis (NY) and Sacred Heart, then Big East play gets rolling with a road tilt at Seton Hall on Dec. 29

Other big-league teams to face this type of poll justice -- to be undefeated come Christmas and still not ranked -- in recent years are TCU (2014-15), Pitt (2005-06) and Vanderbilt (1999-00). 

Irish having awful luck again this season 

On Monday it was announced that key Notre Dame senior Rex Pflueger would miss the rest of the season due to a torn ACL, an injury he suffered on Saturday in the team's notable win against Purdue. Here's what Pflueger posted on social media:

Quick story: So last December, I'm sitting with Mike Brey in his office at Notre Dame. At that point, Notre Dame was 10-3, Brey was about to become the program's all-time winningest coach and the Irish were built for a strong 2017-18 campaign. They had Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell, two of the best players Brey's ever had, with Colson a potential All-American. But the scruffy veteran coach brought up that the unexpected can always threaten, if not derail, a season. He was specifically referring to his constantly looming fear of injuries to his best players. 

Brey proved prophetic. 

Six days after our conversation, Colson was injured and wind up missing the next 15 games. Farrell would go down -- and miss five games total -- not long after that. It sent the Irish plummeting in the ACC and wound up sputtering the team into the NIT. Spooky.

And now, another senior down in Pflueger. The injury came at such point, Brey said, that Pflueger could technically consider returning for another season next year, but by then he'd have essentially wrapped up all his academic duties. Brey said that "may be a February discussion." 

"Just really feel for him," Brey told CBS Sports of Pflueger's injury. "Such a winner and leader. Total youth movement now." 

His injury hampers an already green Notre Dame squad, which Brey told me is the youngest team he's ever coached. There are five freshmen or sophomores who are earning big minutes. Hopes of making the NCAA Tournament are now in flux, even with the Irish at 7-3. If ND doesn't dance this season, it will mark the first time since 2006 that the Fighting Irish have missed back-to-back NCAA Tournaments

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I'm taking Duke among the first four teams because the Blue Devils are also tracking as a top-five defense. Gonzaga'a D is shaky at the moment, UNC has most of the pieces but has still had two duds, and Buffalo is a very good team but I can't take a mid-major over bluebloods. Among the defense-oriented groups, I have to go with Michigan. They've been the most impressive overall team in college basketball so far this season.

It's going to be the WCC. It rates as a stronger league and has better teams at the top. There's a greater chance for the WCC to have results bend toward getting three in. I'll call my shots now. The WCC will send Gonzaga, San Francisco and Loyola Marymount (!) to the NCAAs. The Mountain West will send Nevada and Utah StateNo team has been so good after metrics anticipated a merely mediocre 2018-19. The Aggies started the season ranked 168th at KenPom. As of today, USU is 9-2, ranked 52nd and has a huge road game at undefeated Houston on Thursday. 

This I like. It's still early, so a few players that seem too high or low I'd still wait another 3-5 weeks on. But of the guys who made our list who I'd definitely move, the five obvious ones are: Nassir Little (a good talent, but just too high at No. 9), Zion Williamson at No. 13 (he needs to be at least 10 spots higher), Jalen Hudson (the Florida senior, ranked 28th, has been a freaky no-show), Admiral Schofield (way too low at 53) and Bol Bol, who I worried was going to be entirely too low (he was 95th).

I think there are truly only a few coaches in America who could take a five-star, likely future lottery pick, make him a sixth man and restrict his minutes -- and not have it create a major issue, even behind the scenes. But then again, Roy Williams had top-two pick Marvin Williams come off the bench in 2004-05, as a freshman. Little appears to be making the most of this -- and I think UNC is going to see the benefits of this strategy pay off in a big way in league play. Plus, Coby White has excelled in his role running the offense.

Buzzer-beaters

  • An injury that shouldn't be overlooked: Dean Wade of K-State. Wildcats coach Bruce Weber said on Tuesday that his star big man has a tendon tear in his right foot (sustained on Saturday), and that the timeline isn't known. But Wade will be out for at least three weeks ... or potentially until early February. Wade, the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year, averages 13.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists.
  • Florida Gulf Coast, which has a good team out of the A-Sun once again, took a hit with the loss of senior wing Haanif Cheatham. Eagles coach Michael Fly told CBS Sports that Cheatham's eligibility is now exhausted because of the ill-timed shoulder injury (Cheatham formerly played at Marquette, where he originally suffered shoulder issues). "We'll adjust," Fly said. "But hate it for the kid." Fly said that Cheatham was dealing with the pain so severely that his shoulder would dislocate about once every three weeks. 
  • Grand Canyon, Houston, Illinois and UConn. Those are the four schools/campuses that have been chosen to host the new NCAA youth camps, which will be introduced next year. This is all part of the reform led by the Commission on College Basketball, and it's why coaches won't be able to attend late-July events, most notably in Las Vegas. It's also overlapping on the calendar with USA Basketball camp, in Colorado Springs, meaning elite high school talent is unlikely to attend the regional camps. There remains a lot of skepticism about this -- read 247 Sports recruiting expert Brian Snow's mini Twitter thread for a peek into the cynical -- and the success of these camps in year one is considered an iffy proposition at the moment.
  • Ridiculous streak that ended on Saturday: Gonzaga's 168-game run without consecutive losses. Now that the Bulldogs dropped to Tennessee and UNC consecutively, it's done. On Twitter, I posted a poll asking over or under 4.5 total losses for Gonzaga on Selection Sunday. The majority took the under -- and I'm in agreement.
  • Interesting coincidence: Penn and Old Dominion both had hellish travel issues back in November. They wound up getting stuck in the same airport for hours. But karma has swung back on both programs. Since their airport fiascos, the schools have combined to go 11-0 and beaten Syracuse, Villanova, Miami and VCU. If this bizarre run is to keep going, ODU has to win at Richmond on Wednesday night and Penn has to win at New Mexico on Saturday. 

Final shot

The Tennessee-Memphis game has prompted a real rivalry revival, evidenced by Penny Hardaway's statements from Tuesday. The teams also combined for a great photo opportunity. Shadows lurked amid the fight for the board.

Tennessee v Memphis
Memphis and Tennessee battle for a rebound and get caught up in the shadows at FedExForum on Saturday.  USATSI
CBS Sports Senior Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his ninth season reporting on college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics... Full Bio

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