Three months after giving embattled coach Thad Matta a vote of confidence at the end of last season, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith began having second thoughts.
Smith abruptly fired Matta in June largely because he had lost faith that the Buckeyes had any chance of taking a step forward this season.
Not only had Ohio State failed to reach the NCAA tournament in back-to-back years under Matta, the Buckeyes were in the midst of the offseason from hell. Three more players unexpectedly left the team or turned pro, Matta swung and missed in his pursuit of a handful of graduate transfers and high-priority prospects and Ohio State’s top 2018 recruit rescinded his commitment to the Buckeyes.
“Thad and I had a good plan going into the summer, but recruiting was a major part of that plan,” Smith said in June. “We weren’t winning the battles in recruiting that I thought we might have a chance to win. As we started talking about that, … the flow of the conversation took me to the reality that maybe it was time to make a leadership change.”
That seemingly dismal situation is what Chris Holtmann inherited just one week later after he agreed to leave Butler and replace Matta. Holtmann was able to negotiate an eight-year, $24 million contract in large part because Ohio State recognized that he was tackling a lengthy rebuilding job and wanted to provide longterm job security in case he struggled early.
The notion that Holtmann couldn’t possibly win right away looks silly now with Ohio State exceeding all reasonable expectations for his debut season. The Buckeyes (14-4, 5-0) are tied for first place in the Big Ten with Purdue and a road victory over Rutgers away from breaking into the AP Top 25 for the first time in 90 games.
On Sunday, Ohio State clobbered then-No. 1 Michigan State 80-64 behind 32 points from emerging Big Ten player of the year candidate Keita Bates-Diop. On Wednesday, Bates-Diop delivered 26 more points as the Buckeyes avoided a letdown and stomped visiting Maryland 91-69.
With no losses to teams outside the KenPom top 50 and impressive home victories against Michigan State, Michigan and Maryland, Ohio State appears on track to end its NCAA tournament drought and contend for a top-three Big Ten finish. Challenging Michigan State and Purdue for a conference title isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but the Buckeyes first need to prove they can maintain their recent level of play away from home.
The biggest reason for Ohio State’s unexpected improvement is Bates-Diop’s evolution from intriguing prospect to elite player.
The 6-foot-7 forward has been on the radar of NBA scouts since he arrived in Columbus because of his versatility, wingspan and outside shooting ability, but he hadn’t previously been able to fulfill his potential. He was inconsistent as a sophomore and missed all but nine games last season because of a stress fracture in his left leg.
Maybe it’s just getting healthy. Maybe it’s the new staff motivating him and using him more effectively than the previous one did. Whatever the reason, Bates-Diop is averaging 24 points and 9.6 rebounds in five Big Ten games and has emerged as the bonafied star that Ohio State has lacked since D’Angelo Russell’s lone season in Columbus.
What has also helped Holtmann is the graduation of Marc Loving and the departure of JaQuan Lyle. Those were two of Ohio State’s three leading scorers last season, but neither shot a high percentage from the field or delivered consistent effort defensively.
Many members of the supporting cast around Bates-Diop have improved under Holtmann. Guard C.J. Jackson has provided much-needed playmaking and perimeter shooting all season and has cut down his turnovers in recent weeks. Guard Jae’Sean Tate has scored efficiently when attacking the rim off the bounce while also impacting the game defensively with his long arms, quick hands and relentless hustle. Promising 6-foot-9 freshman Kaleb Wesson has provided the low-post scoring presence Ohio State has lacked in recent seasons.
Heck, even former walk-on Andrew Dakich has bolstered Ohio State’s thin bench and emerged as a contributor. The Michigan transfer logged 27 minutes on Thursday and scored an unexpected 11 first-half points.
Something else Holtmann deserves credit for is the obvious chemistry and camaraderie on this year’s team. Twenty-five of Ohio State’s 29 baskets against Maryland on Thursday night came via assists, a remarkable percentage that speaks to the unselfishness of the Buckeyes and the quality of the sets that Holtmann was running.
When Ohio State upset Michigan State on Sunday, Holtmann cautioned against putting too much stock in one win and admitted he was curious how his team would respond.
Well, so far, so good. A team that appeared destined for a rebuilding season only a couple months ago is instead revitalizing Ohio State basketball, making a run at a top-three Big Ten finish and launching its first-year coach into contention for national coach of the year.
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