When they shake hands, or more likely, bump forearms a few minutes before noon on Saturday, Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann and Indiana’s Archie Miller will be preparing to meet for the seventh time since they were hired at their respective schools in 2017.
Because they took their current Big Ten jobs just months apart, and now compete in neighboring states both on the floor and the recruiting trail, the pair is inextricably linked along with to a lesser extent Illinois’ Brad Underwood, who was also hired in 2017.
The Indiana job opened up March 16, 2017 when the school fired Tom Crean. Miller was hired by IU just over a week later. Two and a half months later in early June, long-time Ohio State head coach Thad Matta stepped down. The job in Columbus was one Miller knew well. He worked at Ohio State for two seasons from 2007 to 2009 under Matta. The coach Underwood replaced at Illinois, John Groce, was part of the 2007-08 Buckeye staff too.
You know Miller’s story by now. He was a hot young coaching prospect at Dayton, leading the Flyers to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances including an Elite Eight run in 2014 that included an upset over Matta and the Buckeyes. If the Ohio State job had opened up before Indiana, there is little doubt that Miller would have been a top candidate and likely the preferred choice in Columbus.
In the mind of at least one well known national college basketball analyst, it would have been a better fit, and perhaps even a preferred destination for Miller.
“I felt like Ohio State was a better job, and that was the one he really wanted, and it opened right after he took Indiana,” The Stadium’s Jeff Goodman said recently on a podcast.
Why does Goodman feel that way?
“It kind of fits him a little bit more,” he continued. “At Indiana you’re in that fishbowl, and that’s not Archie. He’d rather be the second fiddle and just coach.”
Of course Miller took the IU job and fully embraced the fishbowl, but was Holtmann ever a serious candidate to come to Bloomington?
At Butler at the time, Holtmann was on every Indiana new coach hot board after Crean was fired along with Miller and now Louisville coach Chris Mack. But Holtmann would later say that he never spoke to IU about the job. That lines up fairly well with former IU AD Fred Glass’ account. He said Miller was on the short list from the very beginning, the job was never offered to anyone else, and Miller was of course hired less than ten days after Crean was let go.
As it turned out, Miller left the state of Ohio for the IU job, and a couple months later Holtmann, left the state of Indiana for the Ohio State job. That kind of made sense in a weird way at the time since Matta had left Indiana (Butler) to go on to success at Ohio State, while Bob Knight is an Ohio native and Ohio State alumnus.
Holtmann didn’t inherit a particularly deep roster, but he did walk into a better situation with Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop, and a strong veteran leader in Jae’Sean Tate. But the Buckeyes had missed the NCAA Tournament for two straight years, and won just 17 games the year before Holtmann arrived. By all accounts Ohio State overachieved in his first season, finishing 25-9 overall and 15-3 in conference play.
Already there was way-too-early squawking about how Indiana had hired the wrong guy.
Miller, on the other hand, inherited a team that lost future NBA starters OG Anunoby and Thomas Bryant along with the team’s leading scorer James Blackmon Jr. Starting center De’Ron Davis was lost mid-season with an Achilles injury. Indiana’s 16-15, 9-9 season in Miller’s first year, while disappointing to IU fans, was probably a reasonable outcome.
The expectations flipped heading into the 2018-19 season.
Ohio State lost five of its top-seven scorers from the previous season, including Bates-Diop, and the Buckeyes were widely viewed as a team that would finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten. Indiana, on the other hand, had most of its roster returning and a stellar freshman class that included 5-star Romeo Langford.
But Indiana did not live up to expectations during an injury-plagued season. The Hoosiers finished tied with the Buckeyes for 8th in the Big Ten, but had a worse overall record and lost two head-to-head matchups against Ohio State.
Last year Miller beat Holtmann for the first time, but he stands at just 1-5 overall in the head-to-head series. The Hoosiers (20-12) and Buckeyes (21-10) had similar seasons in 2019-20 and both teams were likely headed to the NCAA Tournament, but Ohio State (11-9) once again finished ahead of Indiana (9-11) in the league standings.
And once again Holtmann appears to have the upper hand this season, at least before the series resumes for the only regular season meeting on Saturday in Columbus. Ranked No. 4 and in third place in the Big Ten, Ohio State (16-4, 10-4) is well above expectations while Miller might have his best Indiana team, but thus far that hasn’t led to high-level winning.
As long as they remain in their current jobs, the two coaches will always be compared, and so far Holtmann has emerged as the clear winner.
All in Holtmann is 82-38 during his time in Columbus with a 44-28 record in the Big Ten, while Miller is 66-51 at Indiana with a 32-38 record in conference games. None of that early squawking has dissipated.
Of course nothing stands still in college basketball. A win over the No. 4 Buckeyes on Saturday would go a long way towards solidifying IU’s NCAA Tournament resume while bolstering Miller’s support in Bloomington.
And it would go a long way towards getting people to stop talking about Chris Holtmann.
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