Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann has said all season he does not expect redshirt junior forward Keita Bates-Diop to maintain his high level of production.
Averaging nearly a double-double with 19.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, Bates-Diop has been the backbone to a surprise Ohio State team that finds itself ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll for the first time since 2015.
“It’s probably unrealistic to expect this type of offensive efficiency to continue for him, even as great of a player as he is,” Holtmann said before the Northwestern game. “He’s going to get everybody’s best shot given what he’s done up to this point and I think whether that’s going to come in physical play or in teams really scheming against him.”
Bates-Diop will not have big games every time out. He didn’t against Northwestern, and he had been off to slow starts in several games this season that held the team back. The team has relied on him all season, but there will be games throughout the year when it can’t. It will have to find other sources of production.
Against Northwestern, Bates-Diop’s production finally slipped. The 6-foot-7 forward got off to a slow start and never got going, finish with only 10 points, his second-lowest total this season, and eight rebounds. As a result, Ohio State nearly saw its spotless Big Ten record receive its first stain as the Wildcats brought the game to within three in the final minute of play.
Ohio State avoided the upset, however. Junior guard C.J. Jackson made some crucial free throws late in the game to seal the win and sophomore center Micah Potter was a perfect 5-for-5 from the field to lead the team with 13 points.
For the first time all season, Ohio State did not lean on Bates-Diop. It beat Northwestern 71-65 without much help from its best player.
Against Rutgers, Bates-Diop got off to a slow start, and the Buckeye offense followed. He failed to make a shot in four tries through the first 12 minutes of the game, and Ohio State led only 11-9. In the Buckeyes’ game against Maryland, Bates-Diop did not make a basket until seven minutes into the game, at which point Ohio State trailed 13-9.
But in both games, there were others to pick up the slack. The team did not rely on any one player more heavily than another, but the production was there. And Holtmann said before the match against Northwestern that when Bates-Diop struggles, it will not be the burden of one player to pick up the slack. It will be on the whole team.
“Obviously when you pull 20 points out, it can be a factor,” Holtmann said. “We’d obviously have to be even better defensively, but his absence hurts you on the defensive end as much as anything. I think we’ve got other capable guys for sure. It would just need to be spread out, whether we’re throwing the ball inside or out perimeter guys are making plays or offensive rebounds.”
That has not always happened though.
When the Buckeyes lost 86-59 to Gonzaga, Bates-Diop scored seven points, his season-low. In other games when he got off to a slow start, other players were able to keep Ohio State in the game. But by the time Bates-Diop made his first basket with 18:17 left in the game, the Buckeyes trailed 47-33.
That game, only three players reached double-digit point totals and no player exceeded 12 points. In the Northwestern game, Ohio State had four players score double-figure point totals. There have been other games this season where Bates-Diop doesn’t reach 20, but senior forward Jae’Sean Tate or Jackson leads the way with points.
Freshman center Kaleb Wesson has emerged as a dominant post presence for the Buckeyes, and has flashed the potential to step up when the team needs him. When Bates-Diop was missing shots against Northwestern in the first half, Wesson was often able to gather the offensive rebound and make the putbacks, something he has increasingly displayed throughout the season.
Holtmann said that with a strong supporting cast around Bates-Diop on the floor, there will be times when the Big Ten Player of the Year favorite will be guarded too heavily and will need to work on passing to jumpstart the offense.
“There may be a time or two in games moving forward where [Bates-Diop has] got to be a little bit more of a facilitator in some ways because of how much attention he’s going to get,” Holtmann said.
Early in the season, Ohio State struggled when Bates-Diop struggled. Even lately when its star forward gets off to a slow start, the team seems to follow. But it has seemed as though lately the Buckeyes have demonstrated an ability to pick up the slack when needed.
It is only the most complete teams that contend for Big Ten titles and NCAA Tournament appearances. As the season has worn on, Ohio State has begun to look more like a complete team because it can survive without much help from its star. If it can continue to demonstrate it is not just carried by one player, Ohio State will remain in the hunt for Big Ten titles and postseason play.