Ohio State isn’t even halfway through its conference schedule, and the 16-4 Buckeyes have already matched their Big Ten win total from a season ago. They’re tied atop the standings with a perfect 7-0 league record, marking the program’s best conference start since the 2010-11 team opened Big Ten play at 11-0. And their success is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the preseason polls picked Ohio State to finish 11th in the league. After an excruciating wait of three long years, excitement has returned to the Schottenstein Center, and college basketball fans across the country are scratching their heads as to how it’s happening. Was Thad Matta really holding this team back? Is new head coach Chris Holtmann some sort of savant? Are the additions of Kaleb Wesson and Andrew Dakich really that significant? What the hell is going on?
All kinds of factors have played into Ohio State becoming one of the great surprises of the 2017-18 season, but ask anyone involved with the Buckeyes program and they’ll all point to the same explanation: Keita Bates-Diop. The 6-foot-7 redshirt junior was supposed to be a forgettable piece on a forgettable team. Instead, he’s averaged 19.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, blossomed into the Big Ten player of the year favorite, and emerged as a potential first-round NBA draft pick. He has seven double-doubles on the season, is shooting 51.7 percent from the field (including 39.8 percent from the 3-point line), and puts up 1.7 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. He even dropped 32 points in an 80-64 rout of then-top-ranked Michigan State less than two weeks ago. The reason that Ohio State is so much better than most people projected begins with Bates-Diop breaking out as one of the 20 best players in college basketball. But that raises another question: How did Bates-Diop get so good, so fast?
The response you’ll get from those who know him best is that this question itself is flawed. To them, Bates-Diop has always been this good, and his circumstances are to blame for his talent long remaining a national secret. Bates-Diop isn’t an overnight success story. He’s a story of what happens when a talented player gets healthy, becomes aggressive, and is finally given the freedom necessary to thrive.
Bates-Diop came to Columbus as the second-highest-rated player in Ohio State’s 2014 recruiting class. That group included D’Angelo Russell and Bates-Diop’s current teammate Jae’Sean Tate, both of whom were also given five-star billing. Russell went on to become a first-team All-American and the no. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, so I understand if you don’t believe what I’m about to say, but it’s true: Matta and his staff were just as excited about Bates-Diop’s commitment as they were about Russell’s. Russell was the better all-around prospect, whose skills were more refined, yet Bates-Diop’s potential was obvious from the moment he set foot in Ohio State’s practice gym. Players with his combination of length and skill are rare at the college level, and the Buckeyes coaches knew it.
The problem is that Bates-Diop didn’t seem to know it right away. He played just 9.9 minutes per game as a freshman (the fewest among scholarship players on that team) largely because his shy personality prevented him from challenging the status quo. The 2014-15 Ohio State frontcourt featured two seniors (Amir Williams and Sam Thompson) with Final Four experience, another senior who had been in the program for four years (Trey McDonald), a former Ohio Mr. Basketball (Marc Loving), and a graduate transfer from Temple (Anthony Lee). None of those players were particularly great, and some Buckeyes fans might argue that a few of them were actually detrimental to the team. But seeing the court as a freshman in big-time college basketball requires at least one of three things: undeniable talent, supreme confidence, or a compelling story (like being a local high school hero, a legacy kid, etc.).
Russell checked the first two boxes. Tate, who started 16 games as a true freshman, checked the last two. Bates-Diop, a bashful kid from Normal, Illinois, who was too skinny to play power forward and not quick or skilled enough to play small forward, checked none. And so he remained content to just go with the flow, and the flow usually directed him toward the bench.
Williams, McDonald, Lee, and Thompson departed before the 2015-16 campaign, opening the door for Bates-Diop to showcase his abilities as a sophomore. Every time I went to an Ohio State practice leading up to that season, someone within the program would rave about how Bates-Diop was far and away the best player on the team, and appear giddy to share what was presented as a huge secret. The issue, however, was that Loving and then-freshman point guard JaQuan Lyle clearly weren’t among those in the know. Many Ohio State fans have come to regard Loving and Lyle as energy drains on the program, and I’ll leave it to others to determine whether that assessment is fair. What I will say, though, is that there was a noticeable lack of chemistry among Loving, Lyle, and Bates-Diop. Plenty of fingers have been pointed in assigning blame for the 2015-16 Buckeyes’ shortcomings, but the takeaway for our purposes is simple: Bates-Diop posted good-but-not-great averages of 11.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game on a team that finished 21-14. That was not an accurate portrayal of his talents.
Bates-Diop missed Ohio State’s final two games of his sophomore season because of mono, and then suffered a stress fracture in his left shin the next summer. He tried to play through the injury in 2016-17, but made it through only nine games before having surgery and taking a medical redshirt. In his absence, the Buckeyes finished 17-15 and missed the postseason, leading to Matta’s abrupt firing in June. Loving graduated, Lyle left the program, junior center Trevor Thompson declared for an NBA draft in which his name was never called. Holtmann was brought to Columbus to clean up the mess.
And that brings us to this season, when everything has clicked and Bates-Diop has flourished. He is fully healthy after dealing with illness or injury for basically a full calendar year. He has packed on a ton of muscle since arriving at Ohio State, allowing him to absorb a beating in the paint when it’s required. He’s put in the work during the offseason, honed his skills, and become a player who can score from anywhere on the floor, set up his teammates, and lock down at least three different positions on the defensive end. Perhaps most importantly, he finally has teammates who are not only willing to let him lead them—they want him to.
Meanwhile, Holtmann has injected a new energy into the Ohio State program and reinvigorated a Buckeyes offense that had become clunky and plodding in recent years. Bates-Diop’s supporting cast (especially Dakich and C.J. Jackson) has discovered a sense of confidence, and the Buckeyes have shown a willingness to occasionally experiment with Bates-Diop at center. That probably isn’t a viable long-term strategy, but it nonetheless offers insight into Holtmann’s eagerness to find the best way to get the most out of his star. Holtmann’s decision to leave Butler for Ohio State in June left him with conflicting emotions, as evidenced by his difficulty coaching against his former program in November. A little more than six months removed from that choice, though, I imagine that the opportunity to coach a talent like Bates-Diop—whom Holtmann considers the best player he’s ever shared a locker room with—has helped erase any doubts that may have lingered. (Also likely helping: his salary being doubled.)
Ohio State fans are desperate to understand where Bates-Diop’s explosion came from, and Holtmann’s arrival is the obvious place to start. But it isn’t the only factor. Maybe the absence of Loving and Lyle matters more than people realize. Maybe Bates-Diop’s health was the biggest thing holding him back. Maybe his brother collapsing in a high school practice because of an undiagnosed heart condition changed his mind-set. Maybe Tate deserves credit for accepting a sidekick role after leading the Buckeyes in scoring in 2016-17; maybe Matta took all the right steps in developing Bates-Diop; maybe this was Bates-Diop’s destiny all along.
The only thing that’s certain is that Bates-Diop has found the right situation, and he’s altered the trajectory of both his career and the Buckeyes’ season as a result. He’s now the star he always showed flashes of becoming. It’s official: The secret is out.