BOISE, Idaho — Chris Holtmann won the battle against rust. And a rested, tested Ohio State team could be a real problem for any team in its path in the NCAA Tournament.
Whatever concerns there might have been about the Buckeyes heading into the Big Dance can be set aside now. Whether it was the couple of losses down the stretch, their postseason inexperience or the fact that they may have already accomplished enough to feel satisfied, none of that slowed down a recharged Buckeyes squad.
There obviously will be tougher tests moving forward for the West Region’s No. 5 seed than South Dakota State. But that first-round draw was no cakewalk, and the Buckeyes should use the test and the nervy finish in a 81-73 victory as a confidence-builder heading into Saturday’s “Revenge Bracket” rematch with No. 4 Gonzaga.
Make no mistake, this is a completely different version of Ohio State than the one that was destroyed by the Zags in November. And to be completely honest, it looked like an improved edition than the one that only made a brief cameo appearance in the Big Ten tournament two weeks ago.
Keita Bates-Diop again looked like he could have jumped through the roof on a rim-shaking dunk in transition in the first half. He got elevation on his jump shots, played with confidence and racked up 17 points in the first half. Stars have to make the difference at this time of year, and the junior forward clearly embraced the challenge to carry the Buckeyes and match the volume scoring by South Dakota State’s Mike Daum.
C.J. Jackson knocked down 3-pointers on the perimeter. Andrew Dakich came off the bench to energize the Buckeyes defensively. Jae’Sean Tate was a bully in the paint and stuffed the stats sheet in seemingly every way possible.
There was always the chance that the time off since a disappointing loss to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament could have combined with what Ohio State already achieved during the regular season to create some complacency before heading to Taco Bell Arena. But Holtmann, as he’s done throughout his incredible debut year with the program, pushed all the right buttons.
Sure, there were some dicey moments down the stretch before Kam Williams unleashed his dagger 3-pointer from the right wing that turned into a 4-point play in the final 96 seconds. But this is the Big Dance, and it’s never supposed to be easy — and now the Buckeyes actually have some experience to draw from in do-or-die situations.
Ohio State is energized. Battle-tested. Hungry for revenge.
And completely capable of winning again.