Kevin McGuff is entering his fifth season as head coach of Ohio State women’s basketball (Photo: Marcus Hartman/CMG Ohio)

What Chris Holtmann can learn from Kevin McGuff about jumpstarting Ohio State basketball

If new Ohio State men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann needs advice for making the Buckeyes his own, he need only look down the hall at the Schottenstein Center.

Kevin McGuff already has a pretty good idea what the newest Buckeye boss is going through – he faced a nearly identical challenge four years ago when he was hired to coach the Ohio State women’s basketball team.

While the situations are not a perfect match, there are far more similarities than there are differences.

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In both cases, the winningest coach in school history was let go by director of athletics Gene Smith. Then: Jim Foster. Now: Thad Matta.

Both teams were coming off a year in which they missed the postseason, and both times Smith terminated contracts with significant time and money remaining.

And the reasons? You guess it: Smith cited recruiting as a major concern in both cases, and both moves (not coincidentally) came with a large group of elite prospects residing in Ohio for the coming year.

(There is one obvious difference aside from gender: While Matta made two Final Fours and played for a national title, Foster’s teams never made it past the Sweet 16.)

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Matta and Foster were both very successful on the recruiting trail in the first half of their tenures before losing some momentum and seeing their teams (regardless of talent) grow more and more listless on the court, too.

As such, both left behind small rosters with some big question marks for their new coaches. 

Kevin McGuff is entering his fifth season as head coach of Ohio State women’s basketball (Photo: Marcus Hartman/CMG Ohio)
Photo: Staff Writer

McGuff’s first team went 17-18, though that arguably exceeded expectations given the state of the roster. 

Those Buckeyes went out with a bang, winning two games in the Big Ten tournament, including a rollicking 99-82 win over No. 1 seed Penn State in the quarterfinals.

That set the stage for a 24-win second season (so did the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class including Cincinnati Princeton point guard Kelsey Mitchell, of course) and a third-place finish in the Big Ten in year two.

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McGuff’s third Ohio State team finished second in the conference, and last year the Buckeyes won a share of the regular season title.

So what advice does he have for Holtmann?

“He mentioned it in the press conference, but the first thing would be to embrace your current players,” McGuff said Monday. “I think just getting them together, giving them some direction on what’s important to him will really go a long way with the current team.

“Outside of that, Ohio State is a special place. It’s such a big draw for kids in this area, for kids in the state of Ohio, so with his track record as a tenacious recruiter and a guy who really builds great relationships, I would think he’s gonna do extremely well in this state and have a chance to get some of those high-profile recruits right away.”

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McGuff, a Badin High School grad who was an assistant at Miami University and Notre Dame before becoming head coach at Xavier and then Washington, said he has heard “a ton of good things about (Holtmann) as a person as a coach.”

There is no shortcut to building relationships with new players, and roster limitations might alter what Holtmann wants to do as far as strategy.

The former Butler coach doesn’t have to wait to hit the recruiting trail, though.

“They’re great coaches and it is probably an advantage being a coach in this area and having recruited the state before,” McGuff said. “He’s probably got a lot of great relationships with the high school coaches and AAU coaches that will help him get ready to go very quickly.”

And though he is leaving a school where basketball is the biggest thing on campus, Holtmann will soon get to find out what it is like to have more than 100,000 recruiting assistants on a fall weekend in Columbus.

Those football weekends don’t hurt when it comes to getting prospects to want to visit your campus.

“It’s amazing because obviously kids aren’t coming here to play football, but they do get a sense of how special Buckeye Nation is and the school spirit and the energy around this university, so it’s a huge advantage,” McGuff said. “And I think young people want to be at a place where athletics are important, and at a university where you have a rabid fan base.

“There’s no better place to get an understanding of that than to go to an Ohio State football game. I’m sure Chris and his staff will utilize that like we all do in a manner that helps us get these kids.”

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