Ohio State (4-0) will face its toughest test of the season upon traveling across the country to Portland, Oregon, to play in the PK80 Invitational, starting with No. 17 Gonzaga (3-0) at midnight Friday morning.
The Scarlet and Gray look to build off of an undefeated start to the head coach Chris Holtmann era, taking on some of the best basketball programs in the nation. Redshirt junior forward Keita Bates-Diop and senior forward Jae’Sean Tate have led the way for the Buckeyes, averaging 19.3 points and 10.0 rebounds, and 15.3 points and 7.5 rebounds, respectively.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Bates-Diop said. “There’s a lot of great teams out there. There’s a chance you get to play them all in a three- or four-day stretch. It’s great for us.”
Traveling more than 2,000 miles across the country and playing multiple games in a short time period might appear grueling, but not in the age of AAU tournaments. Tate said most of his teammates have previously played three to four games in a day, let alone a weekend.
Tate expressed excitement at the opportunity to play against top-tier college basketball programs, but emphasized the importance of the team not getting ahead of itself.
“I think it’s going to be the biggest stage we’ve been on in a while,” Tate said. “But we’re just prepping for Gonzaga. We’re just taking it one day at a time.”
The Buckeyes need ample preparation to be ready for Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are coming off of a runner-up finish in the NCAA tournament and have consistently enjoyed success during head coach Mark Few’s 19-year tenure.
Holtmann is well aware of Gonzaga’s sustained success. From what he’s seen, he said Gonzaga appears capable of making another deep run in the NCAA Tournament this season.
“I think they’re just really disciplined. You can tell they’re a program that’s won at a really high level for a number of years because they don’t beat themselves,” Holtmann said. “They’re big. They’re talented. They’re well-coached. They’re one of the very best basketball programs in the country.”
The Bulldogs have had the tall task of replacing Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski and Jordan Matthews, who were their top three scorers last season. They also watched sixth man Zach Collins taken 10th overall in the NBA draft by the Portland Trailblazers.
However, Gonzaga has replaced its key contributors of the past with a mix of returning and new players. Returning to take on bigger roles are redshirt junior guard Josh Perkins and sophomore forward Killian Tillie. The duo is currently leading the team in scoring with 13.3 points, and 12.3 points, respectively.
Freshman forward Corey Kispert and redshirt freshman guard Zach Norwell have already become critical cogs in the Bulldogs’ scheme. Kispert averages 11.7 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, shooting 54 percent from the field and 42 percent from behind the arc. Norwell has been a do-it-all sixth man, averaging 10.7 points, three rebounds, three assists and 1.7 steals in only 18 minutes per game.
Gonzaga ranks No. 17 in the nation in scoring with an average of 94 points per game. Gonzaga has not relied on any one player in particular for production. Instead, the Bulldogs have counted on a balanced attack featuring six players averaging more than 10 points per game.
Given the tournament style and prestige of the teams participating, including No. 1 Duke, No. 4 Michigan State and No. 9 North Carolina, comparisons have been made between the PK80 Invitational and the NCAA Tournament. Tate was asked if it felt like the Buckeyes were preparing for the NCAA Tournament.
“Definitely,” Tate responded. “We play three games and no matter what — all three games — we’re going to have to come out and play. We’re going to have to be the best team we can be because every team in there on their best night can beat anybody in my opinion. We’re just going to prepare for the first one and keep the train rolling.”
If the Buckeyes win, they will play the winner of the Florida-Stanford matchup. If Ohio State loses to Gonzaga, it will play the loser of the Florida-Stanford matchup.
No. 7 Florida (3-0) averages 98 points per game and shoots better than 40 percent from the perimeter. Its leading scorers, redshirt senior guard Egor Koulechov and junior guard Jalen Hudson, average 20.3 points and 8.3 rebounds, and 18.0 points and 4.0 rebounds, respectively.
Stanford (3-2) has struggled early, losing to North Carolina and Eastern Washington. The Cardinal only defeated Northeastern (2-2) by 14 points, whereas Ohio State defeated Northeastern by 25 points. Redshirt junior forward Reid Travis and senior forward Michael Humphrey average 21.2 points and 6.6 rebounds, and 12.2 points and 10.6 rebounds, respectively.
“We feel like every game we play is an opportunity,” Tate answered. “Any game you lose is going to hurt. Any game you win is going to help you. So we’re just taking it one game at a time. As long as we keep stringing the wins together, I feel very confident that we’ll be in the tournament.”