Knowing how the Ohio State men’s basketball team was going to perform each night the past two seasons was a mystery. This year, it might be even more difficult to predict.
Ohio State held its preseason media day Wednesday with all seven returning players, plus Michigan transfer guard Andrew Dakich, before the team’s first official practice Saturday for the first season under head coach Chris Holtmann.
With a fresh coaching staff and a roster full of new players, there likely haven’t been more question marks heading into an Ohio State season since former head coach Thad Matta took over the program in 2004. But despite all the program turnover and offseason storylines, the team goals haven’t changed.
“I was definitely excited [for the season] because I felt that as a team, we didn’t leave it all out there on the table [last season],” senior forward Jae’Sean Tate said. “I wouldn’t say that overall goal hasn’t changed since coach Holtmann came, but the style was an adjustment from one coaching staff to another.”
It’s difficult to know if Ohio State can actually compete with top programs this year, but based on depth and overall uncertainty, the logical answer would be “no.” Yet, if there’s a reason Ohio State can surprise teams and critics around the country, redshirt junior forward Keita Bates-Diop’s play could be it.
After playing just nine games due to a season-ending leg injury last year, which led to a medical redshirt, Bates-Diop returns as perhaps Ohio State’s best two-way player. He said he hasn’t “felt this good in probably a year and a half, physically.”
At 6-foot-7 and with a wingspan of more than seven feet, he has the ability to contest on the glass, defend on the perimeter and shoot over top of any defender.
“I think I’m more consistent with my jump shot. I worked on a lot of the stationary stuff, so I kind of went back to basics, essentially with shooting,” Bates-Diop said. “And coming back, I worked on a lot of footwork and agility stuff just because my leg was weaker and I needed it. I think I’m better in a lot of areas.”
Tate said he believes the team is talented enough to meet its goal, presumably being competitive in league play and improving significantly from last season’s dismal 17-15 finish without a bid to the NCAA Tournament, or even the NIT. However, the steps to get there have changed a bit.
The first step for the team is learning an entirely new system. All the players who spoke Wednesday said Holtmann is a defensively focused coach. In the two hours per week the team can be with the coaching staff in the offseason, per NCAA rules, Holtmann has steered clear of working in the half court, instead focusing on transition defense and offense.
“He’s big on defense,” Bates-Diop said. “All the details in everything. It just kind of opened our minds, essentially.”
Sophomore center Micah Potter said the team is in better condition now than it was at this point last season, which could be a direct cause of the heavy work in transition.
“If you remember back last year, there were a lot of games we lost by, like, one to five points,” Potter said. “I think being in shape will help us keep that focus and help us make those extra hustle plays that help us win those kind of games.”
Depth at point guard is a major issue for Ohio State in 2017-18, with junior C.J. Jackson being the only true point guard on the roster. It is still unknown who is going to be the backup point guard, but all signs point to Jackson playing extended minutes.
Tate, Dakich, Bates-Diop and redshirt senior guard Kam Williams have all been practicing as ball handlers. Bates-Diop said Williams is the most likely of the bunch to receive time at point guard. Williams said he expects to play some point guard this season.
Including Bates-Diop, Ohio State returns three starters and because of depth problems will have to play inexperienced freshmen forwards Kyle Young and Kaleb Wesson and freshman guard Musa Jallow because of depth problems. The players raved about the maturity of the freshmen, which is important for the future of the program, but might not translate to victories in the intermediate.
“We’re Holt guys. We’re Thad guys, but at the end of the day, we’re Holt guys,” Tate said. “We’re the start of this new tradition and coach Holtmann has let us know that there’s an emphasis on we’re going to be the building blocks for years to come.”