COLUMBUS, Ohio — Chris Holtmann tried his best to keep the attention on the good news at Ohio State, but the bad news just couldn’t be ignored completely.
Holtmann was thrilled for Keita Bates-Diop on Monday. He completely supported the star forward’s decision to declare for the NBA draft and his intentions to sign with an agent. And over and over, Holtmann reiterated his desire to keep the spotlight on Bates-Diop and the celebration of the next step in his career with his family, which ended with him holding a framed Ohio State jersey just outside of the room where he gave his last press conference with the program.
But here’s the problem with losing a potential first-round pick: There isn’t just another Keita Bates-Diop waiting for Holtmann to scoop on the graduate-transfer market, which officially now adds to the degree of difficulty for his second year with the Buckeyes.
“We’re not going to find a player like him [this offseason],” Holtmann said on Monday. “You can’t replace him or [Jae’Sean Tate] at this point. We’ve got to continue to get our younger players better.
“Listen, we’re losing 60 percent of our scoring, almost 60 percent of our assists, 60 percent of our rebounding and 90 to 100 percent of our leadership. There’s an exciting, exciting opportunity for these guys, and will we add to our roster? Probably. We will try to add to that. How much, I don’t know. But obviously we’re going to feel the loss of these guys.”
Holtmann did succeed on another front Monday, consistently bringing Tate, Kam Williams and Andrew Dakich into the conversation and looking at the departures collectively.
But while each of those Buckeyes brought something valuable to the table this season on the way to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, there can really be no question that Bates-Diop was the main course. Replacing the best player in the Big Ten isn’t going to be an easy feat. And in all likelihood it won’t be accomplished by adding transfers to fill out the couple of open roster spots.
The Buckeyes have some solid pieces to build around, starting with C.J. Jackson and Kaleb Wesson with Kyle Young expected to take a step forward to play a more prominent role next season. And Holtmann has already proven in one abbreviated offseason that he can perform some roster magic both on the recruiting trail and in the transfer market.
Of course, it would have been much easier for him this time around if Bates-Diop had decided to stick around. But both he and the Buckeyes proved to be too good last year for that to ever be a serious option.
“You know, you can dream,” Holtmann joked. “But I did ask him, what was the one thing that might have changed your mind to say, ‘Hey, I need to come back.’ And he mentioned if the team struggled or was just average. I said, ‘I wish I would have known that during the season.’ I mean, listen here, I have a little bit of an impact when it comes to that. We might have changed the course of a few games — I’m kidding, obviously.
“I think you saw the writing on the wall as the season progressed and I think we knew pretty early on [this] could happen. So, you can’t necessarily prepare for something like this. You can with maybe a couple years in advance in terms of recruiting, but there’s not a whole lot of preparation we could make for this.”
There’s nothing that Holtmann can do about that now, and for the most part he knew this would be the situation heading into Year 2 right from the start. For a variety of reasons, the recruiting classes leading up to the end of Thad Matta’s tenure and the arrival of Holtmann didn’t leave a whole lot to work with at the moment, and it’s going to take some time before Ohio State is in position to better absorb the blow from losing a player of that caliber.
But that was a discussion Holtmann wanted to put off for some time down the road. At least for a day, all he wanted to do was smile about the chance to coach somebody like Bates-Diop instead of scratch his head about how to replace him.
“More than anything, I’m just really excited for him and his family, genuinely really, really happy for Keita and his family for this moment,” Holtmann said. “For us as a program, sure, it allows us to move forward. I think in recruiting, there’s not a whole lot of Keita Bates-Diops out there right now that we can just go and grab. So, I think in the future if we know this might be coming a year out or two years out, you can hopefully plan accordingly in terms of how you put your recruiting classes together.
“But right now, we’re just celebrating with him. Then we’ll figure out what the next step is.”
For the reigning Big Ten player of the year, his is officially set for the NBA now.
And once the last of those hugs were handed out and Holtmann was done reliving those good memories from his only season with Bates-Diop, it will be right back to the drawing board figuring out what to do without him.