Ohio State fans collectively held their breath when redshirt junior forward Keita Bates-Diop hit the floor fighting for a loose ball with eight minutes remaining in the first half. The 6-foot-7 wing got up and brushed himself off, allowing the home crowd to exhale as he walked off the floor uninjured.
Just as he entered last season with lofty expectations, Bates-Diop is counted on to be a key cog in Ohio State’s team this season. The forward missed the majority of last season due to an injury, and a loss of the star forward could prove detrimental to the Buckeyes’ success.
Bates-Diop excelled in his return to Ohio State’s starting lineup with 19 points and 11 rebounds — both team-highs — in the Buckeyes’ 95-64 season-opening victory against Robert Morris at the Schottenstein Center Friday night.
Bates-Diop previewed his season in the Buckeyes’ exhibition game against Wooster last Sunday, producing 17 points and nine rebounds. He completed his return with an impactful performance Friday, officially making his full return from the injury last season.
“I’m healthy; I’m feeling great,” Bates-Diop said. “Obviously, it was a good game from everybody, but that type of energy and production is what we’re hoping for.”
After playing only 9.9 minutes per game as a freshman, Bates-Diop emerged as a key contributor during the 2015-2016 season, leading the team in total rebounds (210) and finishing second in points per game (11.8). With all signs pointing to a breakout junior campaign, the stress fracture came at a bad time for the Buckeyes’ budding star.
He returned to the team midseason, but the injury clearly limited his productivity. Bates-Diop played his final game of the season on Jan. 1, and took a medical redshirt for the season.
In his return, Bates-Diop made his presence felt immediately, using an array of moves to get to the basket throughout the night. Just five minutes into the game, the Buckeye forward maneuvered past a Colonial defender with an impressive spin move, leading to a layup for his second basket of the night.
Bates-Diop provided efficient scoring, activity on defense and relentless effort on the boards in the Buckeyes’ season opener. He converted 9-of-12 shot attempts and hit 1-of-2 attempts from 3-point range in his return.
The versatile forward used his 7-foot-2 wingspan to block two Colonial shot attempts and grab a team-leading 11 rebounds, including a career-high seven offensive rebounds in only 23 minutes of play.
“I was pleased with his activity tonight — his ability to kind of make the right play,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said. “Overall, his ability to impact things on both ends and his ability to get to the glass tonight was really important for us.”
Robert Morris head coach Andrew Toole took notice of how Bates-Diop’s size and versatility presented a hard matchup for the Colonials.
“He’s much bigger and longer than he looks on film for sure. He’s just so smooth and really effortless with a lot of his decisions,” Toole said. “And obviously, a really talented and skilled player and someone that Ohio State’s going to be able to build around, and I think be able to have that kind of production night in and night out.”
Bates-Diop aggressively attacked Robert Morris from the opening tip and tallied 13 points by halftime on 6-of-8 shooting while recording five rebounds. Halftime intermission did not slow down the forward. Bates-Diop added six points and brought down six more rebounds in the first seven minutes of the second half before checking out at 12:59 for the final time with Ohio State leading comfortably 66-41.
Holtmann had continually emphasized the importance of consistent production from his veteran players, particularly Bates-Diop and senior forward Jae’Sean Tate. And now being fully healthy for the first time in two years, Bates-Diop might be the Buckeyes’ go-to guy this season.
“I’ve said that Keita, as well as Jae’Sean, we’re gonna kind of go as they go. And I really believe that,” Holtmann said. “Our season in a lot of ways will be impacted by one or both of those guys. (They) are going to need to play well for us to play well — to have a chance, because they’re terrific kids and they’re really good players.”