BOISE, Idaho — As the Ohio State bus pulled up to Taco Bell Arena, Keita Bates-Diop tried to fight off the painful memory one more time.
It’s been half a dozen years since that championship game as a high school sophomore back in his home state of Illinois, and Bates-Diop could easily forget about it now after taking the college basketball world by storm this season. But in his mind, that was the last time Bates-Diop was really under the bright, postseason spotlight, leading a deep run into a tournament and counted on by his teammates to deliver in a must-win environment.
And he came up short.
“Painful memory,” Bates-Diop said at his locker before practice on Wednesday. “Actually on the way here, I just got caught up thinking about tournaments, postseason, thinking about the last time we really went far.
“I don’t even remember who it was any more, just remember that we lost. That one was rough. It still haunts me to this day.”
Now Bates-Diop is looking for a happier memory to replace that defeat, which, for the record, happened to come at the hands of Breese Central. And if Ohio State is going on the kind of deep run the junior forward envisions, it’s almost certainly only going as far as he can take it when the NCAA Tournament opens with a first-round matchup against South Dakota State on Thursday.
He’s been in an NCAA Tournament with the Buckeyes, of course, but that was a reserve role and a short stay on the court. Bates-Diop only played 18 total minutes in two tournament games as a freshman, and the program hasn’t been back to the Big Dance since — which last year might have at least been partly due to the stress fracture that forced him to miss the majority of the season.
That injury also delayed the leap to stardom Bates-Diop has enjoyed this season, blossoming into the Big Ten Player of the Year, leading the Buckeyes with 19 points and 9 rebounds per game and becoming the face of a resurgent program. But while this is just a return to the national scene for Ohio State as a whole, individually this effectively serves as a debut for Bates-Diop, when the attention and pressure at their highest points.
“That’s pretty surprising,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “Somebody as good as him, that’s hard to imagine. What in the world?
“But then you look at the two teams, they’ve been to three straight and we have limited number of guys that have played. … I used to kind of push that off like it didn’t matter, that experience. But I do think it matters. You have a little better feel for what to expect, you’re a little more aggressive and you’re always hungry in the offseason to get back to this point — win or lose.”
Regardless of the outcome against the Jackrabbits, this might be the last shot for Bates-Diop to make a postseason splash with the Buckeyes thanks to his NBA potential. He’s long, athletic and effective on both ends of the floor, and his upside likely would make him a first-round pick if he chose to forego his final year of eligibility.
That professional level, of course, is yet another big stage for him to showcase his skills. But that discussion is going to have to wait, because there’s a Big Dance floor finally waiting for him to help exorcise some postseason demons.
“At this point, everybody you play is going to be good, and I think obviously the top players on every team have to raise the level of intensity,” Bates-Diop said. “You also have to stay within yourself, don’t try to do anything you haven’t done all season. You just have to play your game to a high level. But this is also the win-or-go-home stuff you dream about when you’re young. It’s March Madness, you watch it every year growing up, watching your favorite team or seeing your favorite player get bounced out. It’s the competitiveness of it all.
“You want to be one of the last guys playing. I’m excited for this opportunity. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a stage like this in any role, whether it’s playing a big part or a little part.”
If the Buckeyes are going to stick around, there’s not really any doubt which of those they will need their regular-season superstar to play.