Ohio State Basketball – Regular Season in Review
The Ohio State men’s basketball team is coming off one of the more surprise season’s in recent memory, finishing the regular season 24-7 and 15-3 in the Big Ten conference, good for a runner up finish. Led by the conference’s player of the year in Keita Bates-Diop and the conference’s coach of the year, Chris Holtmann, the Buckeyes exceeded by leaps and bounds any of the so-called experts preseason expectations. While I felt they were a bit better than what most of the national media predicted them to be, my 10-8 conference prediction was still not giving them enough credit. The Buckeyes had all the elements that make teams successful through the long grind of a regular season. First, they had a veteran team, led by the grinder, Jae’Sean Tate. They had a big body in the middle in freshman, Kaleb Wesson and they had shooters and capable defenders on the perimeter. Where they severely lacked was in the point guard position and a combination of Tate, C.J. Jackson and the overwhelmingly surprising Andrew Dakich filled that role admirably. The return of the long, rangy and athletic Bates-Diop was the ribbon around the package of a team about to make history. On top of all of that, they had an unwavering chemistry about them. They seemed to all really like each other and the newly hired leader, Chris Holtmann and his staff recognized that quickly after his hire in June.
So how did this all come together? To understand that we need to take a stroll back memory lane to where the program was. The date was March 8th, 2017, the 11th seed Buckeyes were walking off the floor at the Big Ten Tournament in Washington D.C., falling on the tournament’s first day to lowly 14 seed Rutgers in what many considered the low point of the legendary Coach Thad Matta’s illustrious Buckeye career. Just a few days later, the NIT passed on the Buckeyes, leaving them without any postseason and sending the Buckeyes home staring at their 17-15 record wondering where the program stood and where it was going. It didn’t get much better in the spring when prized recruit, Darius Bazely from Cincinnati decided he would de-commit from the Buckeyes citing his desire to have a “bigger stage”. It was a harsh reality that the program had to face due to its lack of recent success. Then, it was found out that point guard JaQuan Lyle left the team long before his arrest in Illinois for public intoxication in May. It was becoming clear that the program was in a state of disarray and that there wasn’t any light at the end of the tunnel.
Fast forward to June 5th when Athletic Director Gene Smith announced that Ohio State and the winningest coach in program history, Thad Matta, would part ways. It was a tough decision and one that wasn’t come to easily but Gene Smith strongly felt it was the right thing for the program. So the Buckeyes coaching search began and just four days later, they had their man. Chris Holtmann was hired as the 14th head basketball coach in Ohio State history, leaving Butler to take the helm in Columbus. Despite being assured by Smith and the powers that be that the leash would be long, he immediately reached out to his veteran leaders, Tate, Bates-Diop and Kam Williams and assured them that this would not be a throw away year and that he wanted to make their final year in Columbus a memorable one but he needed their leadership and buy in to make it happen. And boy did they buy in and in a big way. It had been a tumultuous career of ups and downs for the seniors with just one tournament appearance and no better than a 6th place finish in the Big Ten and that was back in 2014-15. The motivation was there and the buy in was there but there were still questions on the court.
Shortly after Holtmann’s hire, highly recruited point guard Braxton Beverly decided he wanted to play elsewhere and Holtmann also had to remove redshirt freshman Derek Funderburk from the roster for failing to live up to his obligations as a student athlete. Those departures left the Buckeyes scrambling for scholarship players. Enter Andrew Dakich, a graduate transfer from of all places, Michigan, where he was a little used walk on and was planning to play his final year at Quinnipiac. Coach Holtmann also went to work on the recruiting trail, flipping a once Butler commit, Kyle Young from Massillon to Ohio State and gaining a commit from Bloomington, Indiana native Musa Jallow, who would subsequently re-classify to the 2017 class, making him eligible to contribute immediately. But how would it all come together? The Buckeyes now had a roster with some talent, but unproven talent and veterans who hadn’t tasted much success at the college level.
The season started well enough and as expected with four straight wins against less than stellar competition. Then, Ohio State would head west to the PK 80 Invitational on Thanksgiving night where a little dose of reality hit, playing a talented Gonzaga team who handed it to the Buckeyes as most expected. A hard fought win in game two of the tournament over Stanford set up a matchup against Holtmann’s former team, the Butler Bulldogs. Surprisingly the Buckeyes jumped all over the Bulldogs and led by 15 with 5 minutes remaining and looked to coast to the finish line with a very successful 2-1 trip to Oregon. The Bulldogs had other ideas and cranked up the pressure and exposed the Buckeyes’ lack of ball handlers, roaring back to send it to overtime and ultimately the win. The Buckeyes would limp back to Columbus and on a short turnaround would host Clemson in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. It was yet another opportunity to for the Buckeyes to get a good preseason win. The game went the Buckeyes way for the first half and early in the second as Ohio State built a double digit lead. Unfortunately they Buckeyes lost their legs in the second half and Clemson was able to get the road victory, sending Ohio State to their 3rd loss in 4 games and a 5-3 mark to start the season. This wasn’t an entirely unexpected result for a team not expecting much this year by most outside the program. This wasn’t acceptable to those within the 4 walls of the locker room. They were an eyelash from 7-1 and to a man, felt their best basketball was ahead of them.
Due to the compressed Big Ten schedule this season, the Buckeyes and other Big Ten schools were forced to play a pair of early conference games and Ohio State’s opener would be the always difficult trip to Madison, Wisconsin. The Buckeyes would go into Madison and hand the Badgers their worst ever defeat in the Kohl Center, 83-58, and Ohio State was feeling pretty good about themselves, but knew their rival, Michigan was coming to town with a very talented team just two days later. The Wolverines exploded out to a 20 point lead late in the first half, before the Buckeyes finished the half on a 7-0 run to cut the deficit to 13. The second half, the Buckeyes roared out to a 19-3 run taking control of the game and pulling away late to start the conference season 2-0.
Another 3 games against mid major opponents allowed them to gain a little momentum before heading to New Orleans for a matchup against the defending National Champion North Carolina Tarheels in the CBS Sports classic. The Tarheels took control in the first half while Keita Bates-Diop was on the bench after picking up 2 quick fouls. The Buckeyes would claw back and made it game but the Tarheels would be just a bit too much, pulling away late for the 14 point win. Although it was a loss, the Buckeyes saw something in themselves that gave them the confidence that they could play with one of the better teams in college basketball encouragement moving forward. They finished off non-conference play with a lackluster performance against Miami University, but nonetheless a victory and the Buckeyes sat 11-4 and 2-0 in conference play but knowing what was ahead in the New Year tempered most observer’s enthusiasm.
The New Year started well with a win at a struggling Iowa team but then the win nobody expected. The #1 ranked Michigan State Spartans came to Columbus boasting player of the year candidates and McDonalds All Americans but the Buckeyes would not waver, putting the proverbial smack down on the Spartans, for a 16 point win, led by the ever emerging Bates-Diop’s career high 32 points and established the Buckeyes as a true contender in the Big Ten conference. The wins kept coming for the Buckeyes and before they knew it, they were sitting at 9-0in the Big Ten Conference and the nation was beginning to take notice, ranking the Buckeyes as high as 8th in the AP poll. That’s when the compressed schedule may have started taking its toll on Ohio State. With Penn State coming to town on January 25th, it would be the 4th game in 8 days for the first place Buckeyes. Penn State’s athleticism got the best of Ohio State for much of the game as the Buckeyes looked a step slow. However a furious rally late, capped by a Bates-Diop triple with just seconds remaining tied the game and it looked as if Ohio State had found a second life. The Lions would scramble to ball up the floor and Tony Carr released from 30 feet and banked in a long 3 to dash Ohio State’s hopes of moving to 10-0.
The loss, while devastating, did not deter this veteran laden club who had now established leadership from the always hard working Tate and Bates-Diop who led by example but the most unlikely spot in grad transfer Andrew Dakich who was playing 22 minutes a game, running the point and providing a spark defensively that this team needed. A pair of home wins would follow before the big one in West Lafayette against what looked like an unstoppable 3rd ranked Purdue team who was in control of the Big Ten conference, riding a 19 game winning streak and hadn’t lost a home game for over a year. For much of the game, we got what we expected and the Boilers led by 14 with just 10 minutes remaining. But the tough minded Buckeyes would not go away and kept chipping at the lead in front of a frantic crowd at Mackey Arena. Then, the unthinkable happened as Bates-Diop who’s performance may have cemented himself as the conference’s player of the year, scored the game winner with under 3 seconds remaining and the Buckeyes now sat in first place in the Big Ten and controlled their destiny to a conference crown.
A dominant win over Iowa on February 10thset up the home stretch of basketball and to the amazement of everyone, including their head coach, the Buckeyes were a full game up on the rest of the conference with 5 games remaining. The final stretch was probably their most challenging of the conference season with road tilts at Penn State and Michigan and a season ender at the always difficult Indiana Hoosiers in Bloomington. The stretch didn’t start well with the Buckeyes getting their hat handed to them in State College from start to finish but they still clung to their Big Ten hopes, now tied with Michigan State with 3 games remaining. A trip to Ann Arbor on national TV was played to a sold out crowd in what was termed at Michigan as a “Maize Out”, made for a difficult environment and one the Buckeyes could not escape despite a valiant effort. They had not only lost to their arch rival, they now needed to win out and get a little help to gain the conference crown. They came back home on senior night and in dominant fashion, dispatched Rutgers, sending off Tate, Williams, Dakich and potentially Bates-Diop in resounding fashion. That set up the finale at Assembly Hall in Bloomington. The game went back and forth with the Buckeyes clinging to the lead for the majority of the evening. The Hoosiers were determined on their own senior night and battled the game to double overtime. Indiana scored a late bucket in the second overtime to take a 1 point lead with just seconds remaining and both teams out of timeouts. That’s when the cardiac kids went to work. C.J. Jackson raced up the floor and with Bates-Diop on his left, took it upon himself to end the season in style. Jackson pulled up from well beyond the arc and drilled the triple with under 2 seconds remaining, stunning the Hoosier faithful and spurring a wild celebration of Buckeyes on the floor. It was a dramatic and fitting finish to an improbable season. One in which they would ultimately finish in 2nd place in the Big Ten conference and a potential top 5 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
With that kind of success, naturally comes the post-season awards and the Buckeyes were not lacking in that department. As mentioned previously, Chris Holtmann, to nobody’s surprise was named the Big Ten Coach of the year, while Keita Bates-Diop became the first Buckeye since Evan Turner in 2010 to win the conference player of the year. Bates-Diop also was a unanimous choice to the conference first team, while Jae’Sean Tate appeared on the coaches’ second team. Kaleb Wesson was also named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team. So, team 119, as they refer to themselves, will forever go down in history as one of the most surprising stories in Ohio State and college basketball history. The effort and determination of a group of guys who seemed to genuinely care about one another, who bought into a new head coach, who played as a team as evidenced by the way they shared the basketball, and played the game the right way is something to be admired. They aren’t always the more talented team on the floor, but they played with a level of toughness and grit that more talented teams don’t always bring on a game by game basis. They may lose, but they won’t get out worked. That was their mantra from day 1 and it paid off and then some. There is still more basketball to be played and no one knows how the season will ultimately end, but regardless of what happens next, this team will be forever remembered by how they played and the character of the guys who took the floor each time out. For now, the focus is Madison Square Garden in New York City for the Big Ten tournament, where the Buckeyes will tip on Friday as the 2 seed and the double-bye, the first double-bye this program has had since the Big Ten expanded to 14. They will get much needed rest this week before taking the floor against either Northwestern or a potential revenge game against Penn State. It’s the win or go home time of year and here’s to hoping these guys can play awhile longer because they have been a lot of fun to watch. After the Big Ten tournament, they will await their fate for the NCAA tournament where they will make an appearance for the first time since 2015. So no matter what happens going forward, a big and hearty thank you to Jae’Sean Tate, Kam Williams, Keita Bates-Diop, and Andrew Dakich and their teammates for a job well done. Thanks for the memories fellas and here’s to hoping you can create a few more.
– Jason Harris