BOISE, Idaho — The star carried the load, just the way Ohio State needed him to in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
But Keita Bates-Diop wasn’t working alone, which is exactly why the Buckeyes are still alive for a matchup in the second.
The supporting cast for the West Region’s No. 5 seed was invaluable in what turned out to be a nervy win at Taco Bell Arena over South Dakota State on Thursday night. And with a much stiffer test on tap Saturday against No. 4 seed Gonzaga, the Buckeyes are again going to be relying on some players who aren’t national player of the year candidates if their feel-good story is going to continue into the Sweet 16.
Can Ohio State get there? Absolutely.
Who needs to stand out to make it happen? These are the X-factors for the Buckeyes and what they have already done in the Big Dance.
The reserve guard struggled a bit with his shot from 3-point range. But what Andrew Dakich lacked offensively, he more than made up for on the other end of the floor with relentless, manic energy to jolt the Buckeyes seemingly whenever they were starting to lag. The coaching staff was joking in the postgame locker room about their surprise that they couldn’t bring themselves to take Dakich off the floor in the second half, but in all seriousness his 28 minutes were crucial for Ohio State. He finished with 4 rebounds, 3 steals and 3 assists. That might seem relatively modest, but they helped make the difference. His help on the defensive end will again be needed against a talented Gonzaga roster.
The self-confidence might never waver for the senior guard, but his production certainly tends to be much more inconsistent. Kam Williams hadn’t scored more than 17 points in a game all season coming into the tournament, and that total had come in a blowout against an overmatched opponent from The Citadel. But a shooter who had been shut out entirely in four outings this season exploded for the Buckeyes in the Big Dance, pouring in 22 points and a game-breaking 4-point play in the clutch to set up the matchup with Gonzaga. The last time the teams met, Williams was essentially a non-factor with just 6 points — and that can’t happen for Ohio State in Idaho.
Ohio State’s powerful freshman forward needed the break between the Big Ten Tournament and the opener against South Dakota State to help heal a sore ankle and rebuild his conditioning. And Kaleb Wesson was confident coming into the matchup that he was rested and ready to make an impact against the undersized Jackrabbits. That never quite materialized and he actually spent the majority of the game on the bench, with a pair of rebounds and an assist going down as his only real contributions to the victory. Simply put: The Buckeyes will need interior scoring and some strong rebounding work against Gonzaga to advance to the Sweet 16, and Wesson should be the playerto do it.