Ohio State basketball is headed to the 2018 NCAA Tournament and will open against South Dakota State as a No. 5 team in Boise, Idaho on Thursday. In another season, this might not seem like a particularly noteworthy accomplishment for a team that was in the Final Four as recently as 2012. But for the Buckeyes, it’s the cherry on top of a wonderful surprise.
Ohio State isn’t the most-storied men’s basketball program in the country, but it has some serious tradition. Under Thad Matta, Ohio State won six Big Ten championships and made nine NCAA Tournaments, two Final Fours and one national championship game. So when Ohio State missed the NCAA Tournament two years in a row and didn’t make the NIT in 2017, it was a severe change of pace for the program.
Then more bad news came. Rising senior JaQuan Lyle quit the team, sophomore David Bell transferred and center Trevor Thompson declared for the NBA draft despite not having much of a chance of getting selected. Out went Matta, arguably the program’s best coach, and in came Chris Holtmann, who had led Butler to three straight March Madness appearances.
Chris Holtmann came in and made some moves, but a return to glory figured to take time
A couple lackluster recruiting classes appeared to leave the cupboard bare for Ohio State’s new coach. When Holtmann arrived, the Buckeyes had only seven scholarship players. Holtmann got Butler commit Kyle Young and former Michigan walk-on Andrew Dakich to come to Ohio State, but elected to enter the season with only 10 scholarships filled.
“Having to put the finishing touches to a roster together in June was unlike anything our staff had experienced,” Holtmann told reporters this summer. “The biggest [thing] we didn’t want to do is we didn’t want to mortgage the future. … That was important for us.”
Ohio State’s roster still looked slim and it was unclear where the offense would come from. The team finished 11th in the Big Ten preseason poll, KenPom had the Buckeyes at No. 78 nationally and there weren’t many stern objections to those rankings. This team had work to do.
Instead, Ohio State came out of nowhere to be one of the Big Ten’s best teams
Ohio State started its season in unremarkable fashion, but the Buckeyes beat the teams they were supposed to defeat. A loss to Holtmann’s old team in the PK80 tournament was awkward, but that was as bad as it got in nonconference play. When Big Ten play started for good in January, Ohio State was 11-4. Then the Buckeyes made a statement with a 16-point win over then-No. 1 Michigan State.
“I understand what a moment like this can mean for our university when a program like ours is being successful, how much pride our fan base takes in it, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Holtmann said after that game. “I think we’ve got work to do in years, but I think a moment like this, if you’re saying does it give you a glimpse about what this place can feel about a moment like this, sure.”
The win gave Ohio State possession of first place in the Big Ten, and Holtmann’s team held that for more than a month. Michigan State ended up seizing first place after Ohio State dropped back-to-back games against Penn State and Michigan, and the Buckeyes’ third loss of the season to Penn State tossed them from the Big Ten Tournament. That will leave a sour note in any fan’s mouth, but it shouldn’t leave anyone too down in the dumps.
Ohio State received contributions from everyone, and a huge upgrade from Keita Bates-Diop
So how did this team that lost all its stars end up near the top of the Big Ten? The reasons are simple.
Keita Bates-Diop came back from an injury that caused him to miss almost all of last season and became Ohio State’s go-to player on both ends of the court. He led the Buckeyes in scoring (19.4) and rebounds (8.8) on the way to winning Big Ten Player of the Year. Ohio State would have been lost without its versatile star.
But Bates-Diop received help, especially from upperclassmen guards Jae’Sean Tate and C.J. Jackson and freshman center Kaleb Wesson. Tate and Jackson helped stabilize a backcourt that didn’t regress after losing leading scorer Marc Loving, and Wesson was a disruptive presence down low who’s going to be a force for the next few years.
Ohio State isn’t guaranteed to be a contender next season, but fans have reason to believe again
Regardless of whether the Buckeyes make noise in the NCAA Tournament, Ohio State has overachieved this season. Next up: Make sure this team is set up to start making regular runs into the second and third weeks of March Madness.
That mission could be tough next year, as Tate and Kam Williams will be out of eligibility and Bates-Diop could go pro. That would leave Ohio State having to account for a ton of offense without another former top-30 recruit such as Bates-Diop to save the day.
But Holtmann’s certainly given fans reason to trust he can guide this program in the right direction.
Correction: This story initially listed C.J. Jackson as a player who will exhaust his eligibility after the season. He still has one year of eligibility remaining, while Kam Williams will have used up his eligibility after this season. The story has been updated to reflect this. Land of 10 regrets the error.