New coach, healthy star push Buckeyes to unexpected heights
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio State’s elimination from the Big Ten tournament by lowly Rutgers last March showed the depths to which Buckeyes basketball had fallen in a just few short seasons.
First-year coach Chris Holtmann showed his players video cuts of that debacle before Sunday’s game, the first against the Scarlet Knights since the tournament. Ohio State then went out and routed Rutgers 68-46 .
On Monday the Buckeyes cracked the AP Top 25 poll for the first time in nearly three years. On Wednesday night they beat Northwestern to improve to 7-0 in the Big Ten — matching the number of conference wins they had all of last season.
Ohio State, 16-4 overall, is tied for first place in the conference with No. 3 Purdue and has forced its way into the NCAA Tournament conversation. Holtmann is the first coach in 95 years to win his first seven Big Ten games.
Who would have thought?
The Buckeyes missed the tournament for the second straight season last year. The loss of three of the top four scorers, transfers and a thin recruiting class led to a gloomy forecast for 2017-18. Thad Matta , who oversaw the rebuilding of Ohio State basketball in his 13 seasons, was fired and Holtmann, who had success at Butler, was brought in.
Holtmann managed to pull some pieces together but Ohio State lacked depth, especially at point guard. The coach did his best in the preseason to keep expectations low for what looked like another lost season.
He’s still trying to temper expectations, but the Buckeyes haven’t yet taken the lumps that he or anybody else were sure would come.
“Any coach that, through a third of the season, went undefeated would have to say they’re surprised,” he said. “I just think fortunately our team in general has played well and our really good players have led the way with that, both at home and on the road.”
None of those players has been better than Keita Bates-Diop , who missed all of the Big Ten schedule last season with a left leg injury that required insertion of a steel rod in his shin. He didn’t play again after Jan. 5 and not much went right for the Buckeyes after that.
Averaging 19.8 points per game, the 6-foot-7 forward has earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors for the past two weeks in a row.
Jae’Sean Tate, last year’s leading scorer, again is a major contributor. Point guard C.J. Jackson is second on the team in scoring, averaging 13.3 points per game. Freshman Kaleb Wesson, 6-foot-9 and 270 pounds, is providing needed bulk inside while averaging 11.2 points per game. His brother Andre, a sophomore, missed all of the summer and the first few weeks of fall practice with an illness but is contributing again.
Center Micah Potter, slowed by ankle injury this season, stepped up with a season-high 13 points on Wednesday as Northwestern applied pressure on Bates-Diop and Tate.
And Andrew Dakich, a graduate transfer who was a bit player for three years at Michigan, has been a bulldog at guard. His career high 11 points against Maryland Jan. 11 included three 3-pointers at the end of the first half that helped propel the Buckeyes to a 91-69 blowout. He is 12 of 18 for the season from 3-point range.
Holtmann, with an emphasis on defense and proper response to adversity, continues to publicly promote the theme that his team can’t possibly keep scoring at this pace and having this kind of success.
Don’t tell his players, though.
“I think it’s been all about approach,” Tate said. “Our approach every day in practice, our approach pregame. We always say we were picked (to be) one of the last teams in the Big Ten. We’re going to continue to play with that chip on our shoulder.”