Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann and Illinois State counterpart Dan Muller won't know whether to hold their breath or exhale in relief when their teams open the 2020-21 season in Columbus on Wednesday.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused an offseason fraught with scheduling nightmares and testing protocols and led to this game being agreed upon less than 10 days ago. But nonetheless, Holtmann is eager to see what the No. 23 Buckeyes can do coming off last season's 21-10 record, including 11-9 in the Big Ten and a four-way tie for fifth place.
"The opportunity to play games right now in the midst of what we're going through is a blessing every time we get a chance to do that, so really grateful for where we're at," Holtmann said Monday. "We understand there's going to be some obvious interruptions, but we're excited about continuing to prepare."
Illinois State, which was 10-21 overall and 5-13 (ninth) in the 10-team Missouri Valley Conference last season, knows all too well how the coronavirus can be disruptive. The Redbirds had a player test positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 19, forcing eight players into quarantine for 14 days per NCAA regulations.
"Will we be as good on the 25th as we would be if this didn't happen? Certainly not," Muller said.
Illinois State was picked for ninth in the MVC this season and that was before forward Keith Fisher III opted not to play because of the pandemic. Fisher was second on the Redbirds last season with 9.6 points per game and led in rebounding at 6.0.
The Redbirds received good news last week when forward Sy Chatman (6-foot-8, 220 pounds) received immediate eligibility after transferring from Massachusetts to add to the new-look frontcourt.
He joins junior college transfers Dusan Mahorcic (6-10, 240) and Alex Kotov (6-10, 220), redshirt freshman Harouna Sissoko (6-7, 215) and true freshman Alston Andrews (6-9, 230).
"We do have lots of candidates and guys with size and guys who can shoot it," Muller said. "We have a really good depth of options."
The Buckeyes will try to replace forward Kaleb Wesson, who left after his junior season but was not chosen in last week's NBA draft, and his senior brother, Andre Wesson, who averaged 9.2 points and 3.9 rebounds per game in 29 games, including 23 starts.
California transfer Justice Sueing, who sat out last season per NCAA rules, will help fill the void. The 6-7, 215-pound wing led Cal with 14.3 points and 6.0 rebounds in 2018-19.
Holtmann said the Redbirds offer a test.
"It's a program that comes from one of the best leagues in the country. They have beaten, I believe, the last couple of years, South Carolina ... (and) Ole Miss," he said, referring to games in the 2017-18 season. "They have a lot of returning shooting on the roster as well as some depth on the interior that they've added from either transfers or junior college. They have some returning starters.
"We expect it to be a great challenge, and we expect it to be a really highly competitive game. Any time you're playing a team from the Missouri Valley, I think that's what you have to expect," Holtmann said.
--Field Level Media