Moments after his team’s impressive comeback victory over third-ranked Purdue on Wednesday night, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann was asked how he’d have responded if someone told him before the season that the Buckeyes would contend for the Big Ten title.
“What did you have to drink and how much?” Holtmann deadpanned to the Big Ten Network.
What seemed like an alcohol-fueled pipe dream in November is now reality only three months later. An Ohio State team projected to finish 11th in the Big Ten before the season is improbably tied atop the league after a resilient 64-63 victory at Purdue.
There were many heroes during the Buckeyes’ 25-10 finishing surge to erase a 14-point deficit with just over 10 minutes to go.
Jae’Sean Tate consistently created scoring opportunities off the dribble. Andre Wesson banked in a key 3-pointer and played solid defense against bigger players in the paint. Andrew Dakich came off the bench to keep a late possession alive with his hustle. And Big Ten player of the year favorite Keita Bates-Diop scored eight of his game-high 18 points during the run including the game-winning basket.
Ohio State still trailed by one with under 10 seconds to go when Tate used a ball screen to create a favorable matchup, attacked the basket but missed the potential game-winning layup. Bates-Diop took advantage of the defense collapsing on Tate, swooped in from behind the play and scored a put-back to put the Buckeyes up for good with 2.8 seconds to play.
Keita Bates-Diop’s put-back gives Ohio State yet another signature win. pic.twitter.com/N3MEkXguBu
— James Grega Jr. (@JGrega11) February 8, 2018
Ohio State’s victory at Purdue is the Buckeyes’ best moment in a season of unexpected wins. This is a Boilermakers team that had reeled off 19 straight victories and torn through the Big Ten with startling ease thanks to its lethal, multifaceted offense.
At 21-5 overall and 12-1 in Big Ten play, Ohio State is now tied with Purdue for first place in the Big Ten with perhaps a more favorable remaining conference schedule. Whereas the Boilermakers still visit Michigan State later this month, the Buckeyes’ toughest remaining games come against Michigan and Penn State.
That Ohio State is in position to win the Big Ten is a testament to the job Holtmann has done in his first season as head coach. This was supposed to be a rebuilding season for a Buckeyes program that had missed the NCAA tournament the previous two years.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith fired Thad Matta in June largely because he had lost faith that the Buckeyes had any chance of being competitive this season. Three players had unexpectedly left the team or turned pro during the spring, Matta had swung and missed in his pursuit of a handful of graduate transfers and high-priority prospects and Ohio State’s top 2018 recruit had rescinded his commitment to the Buckeyes.
That seemingly dismal situation is what Holtmann inherited last June 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 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 is averaging 20.2 points and 8.9 rebounds this season 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.
This year’s Ohio State team plays with effort and chemistry, and it shows in the Buckeyes’ results. In front of a roaring Mackey Arena crowd, they picked up a signature victory that cements them as a Big Ten title threat and their coach as a national coach of the year contender.
You don’t need to be drinking to envision either of those possibilities anymore.
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