BOISE, Idaho — The seed comes with its own well-known peril for Ohio State.
Assuming the Buckeyes are able to avoid the pratfalls that come with being on the No. 5 line in the NCAA Tournament bracket, there’s a potential opponent waiting that already pasted them once this season.
So there’s a good reason why Chris Holtmann was calling his squad a trendy upset pick when the field was announced. But don’t take the bait.
Holtmann’s club is more than capable of going on a run this weekend at Taco Bell Arena — and maybe even longer. And a little faith in the Buckeyes could go a long way toward putting together a winning bracket since less than a quarter of all entrants in ESPN’s competition as of Wednesday had them advancing to the Sweet 16.
So, why back Ohio State to at least navigate its way through a successful opening weekend? These reasons are as clear as the scenic Idaho skyline.
Chris Holtmann is on the sideline
Chris Holtmann, the Big Ten Coach of the Year, has solidified his reputation as one of the top coaches in the game in his first season with Ohio State. Holtmann came to the Buckeyes already highly regarded. He paid his dues by rising up the ranks from an NAIA assistant to sustaining success at Butler, and he’s only enhanced his standing nationally by leading a remarkable, unexpected resurgence with the Buckeyes. A year ago at this time, Holtmann’s Butler team won a pair of games during the opening weekend, and he already knows what it takes to handle the preparation for the first game and the quick turnaround with a big challenge on short notice. It also hasn’t taken long at Ohio State for Holtmann to prove that betting against him is usually a bad idea.
Keita Bates-Diop is on the floor
There is no shortage of stars in the pod in Boise. But with apologies to South Dakota State’s Mike Daum or Gonzaga’s loaded lineup led by Johnathan Williams, Keita Bates-Diop will be the best player on the floor at Taco Bell Arena and has the talent to carry the Buckeyes deeper than even just a couple of wins when he gets rolling. As impressive as the numbers are for the Bates-Diop, the Big Ten Player of the Year with 19 points and 9 rebounds per game, he could be even more valuable as a defensive difference-maker given his length and athleticism — particularly against the high-scoring Daum and the Jackrabbits. This is Bates-Diop’s moment to shine, and when he’s at his best, the Buckeyes will be a threat to any opponent.
Ohio State has motivation on its side
The Buckeyes are aware of the history of upsets for No. 5 seeds, and they have no interest in joining that list of victims. So, don’t expect them to overlook South Dakota State, particularly since tripping up down the stretch could potentially overshadow all the impressive work that preceded the postseason this year. And if Gonzaga is able to defend its seed and set the stage for a rematch, Ohio State will have revenge on its mind to drive it in the second round. The Buckeyes are certainly a completely different team now than the one that lost to the Bulldogs 86-59 on a neutral court in November, and they will be eager to prove it.
Kaleb Wesson ready to be X-factor
The Buckeyes are going to need a strong outing from Jae’Sean Tate alongside Bates-Diop, but relying on veteran leaders is pretty much a given. The key to stringing together postseason victories is finding somebody else to emerge and carry the weight, and Kaleb Wesson’s 6-foot-9, 270-pound frame is built to do it. South Dakota State only started one player taller than 6-foot-6, so that should provide opportunities in the opener for Wesson to top his average of 11 points per game. And while Gonzaga boasts a bit more muscle in the front court, that will only make the freshman more important for the Buckeyes moving forward.
And if that plan all comes together, any bracket backing the Buckeyes should be in line for a major boost.