Keita Bates-Diop has single-handedly transformed Ohio State, and this is a moment the institution has waited more than three years for.
Keita Bates-Diop was one of three-five star recruits the Ohio State Buckeyes signed in 2014. ESPN’s class rankings had D’Angelo Russell at 13th and Jae’Sean Tate back 15 spots at 28 with Bates-Diop stuck in the middle at 22. The Bloomington, Illinois native didn’t have the powerhouses of college basketball knocking at his door, and that seemed odd given his physical makeup (6-7 with a wingspan exceeding seven-feet) and exuberant athleticism.
It’s taken some time for Bates-Diop to reach his potential. But now few college basketball players are more fun to watch than the potential Big Ten Player of the Year.
After a stress fracture cut his junior season short, the now 22-year-old was awarded a medical redshirt and allowed to return for his fourth season. Following a disappointing 2016-17 campaign where the Buckeyes went 17-15 and 7-11 in conference play, Thad Matta was gone. Chris Holtmann was brought in and has resurrected the program — with help from his star redshirt junior, of course. Holtmann had accumulated 114 wins with Gardner-Webb and Butler, and each of his three seasons with the latter team ended with an NCAA Tournament appearance. The results that he’s getting during his first year with Ohio State are remarkable.
As of Tuesday, the Buckeyes are 20-5 overall. They’re second in the conference with an 11-1 record, and their current winning percentage (.917) is on pace to be the highest since 2006-07, the year that Greg Oden and Mike Conley led the team to the national championship where they lost to Florida. That season, Wisconsin handed them their only conference loss.
The most recent AP Poll ranks Ohio State as the 14th-best team in the country. With a win over Purdue — who’s ranked third — on Wednesday, there’s the chance the Buckeyes climb up the poll yet again. And everything related to their ranking is because of Keita Bates-Diop. Through 25 games, he’s averaging 20.2 points and 8.9 rebounds. His versatile scoring ability is ideal for the next level, and he’s routinely projected as a first-round pick because of it. Despite shooting the three-ball at 36.7 percent, Bates-Diop maintains an overall clip of 51.0 percent because of his size and explosiveness. He’s a slasher at heart. And his bag of tricks is getting deeper and deeper.
Keita Bates-Diop fits the prototypical scoring forward of the modern NBA because he can play with or without the basketball. As much as Ohio State relies on him, he’s just a scorer. They don’t expect him to bring the ball up the court and orchestrate their offense, and things are better because of it. Once Bates-Diop catches, there’s no limit to what he can do. He changes gears seamlessly, and his face up game is top notch. He puts the ball on the deck with the confidence of a seasoned artist, and that capability creates endless scoring chances for a team that would otherwise lack a feared number one option.
There have been only three games this season where Bates-Diop failed to reach 15 points. There have also been seven games where he’s eclipsed 25, including a season-high 35 against Illinois and 32 against Michigan State. His unwavering attack has him atop the Big Ten in scoring and field goals made. He’s marvelous.
All of the attributes above make for a lethal scorer, but they’re amplified when a player is as active on the glass as Bates-Diop is. His rebounding average is third in the conference and has shot up to 9.4 a night since Big Ten play has started. He’s had three double-doubles in his last five games and totaled 11 for the year. After hauling in rebounds, Bates-Diop can attack when the defense is at their weakest. They haven’t had time to set themselves, and he slithers through the lane with great patience and frightening aggressiveness.
The fascinating part about Keita Bates-Diop’s game is that he maintains the same level of activity on both ends of the floor. He’s able to get a bucket on one end and then follow it with either a steal or block on the other. That’s attributed to size and athleticism and all that, but also because Holtmann has fostered a defensive identity in his short time there. Last season, Ohio State ranked 113th in points per game allowed with 69.8. That’s dropped to 66.2 this year, good for 39th overall.
At the time of this writing, the redshirt junior is averaging 1.7 blocks and 1.0 steals per game, making him one of only three Big Ten players to have that combination; according to Sports Reference, his defensive rating is 90.9, the fifth-best mark in the conference. He could very well shock some teams next season by making an impact on the defensive end, and that’s more than likely because he’s not going to have to carry such a tremendous scoring load.
As the Ohio State Buckeyes near the end of the season, the microscope will begin to zoom in on Keita Bates-Diop. His expectations will rise, as will his draft stock if he builds on this level of play. No matter what happens, though, the 22-year-old redshirt junior is proof that older, more experienced guys can compete at the same level and be just as entertaining as their younger counterparts.
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