In the infancy of the 2017-‘18 season, the Ohio State Buckeyes have managed to take care of business. At 4-0, Chris Holtmann’s squad has toppled early foes in Robert Morris, Radford, Texas Southern, and Northeastern. While that list is notably weak, there is something to be said for a team with so many new faces winning games they are supposed to win - a sentiment left unfulfilled by the Buckeyes’ candy-striped colleagues in Bloomington.
Now, on the precipice of the PK80 tournament, things look to get a little more serious. First up are the No. 17 ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs, reigning runners up and out to prove they remain in the national conversation.
While a win against a top-flight team like Gonzaga would serve as an early watershed moment in the long road to resurgence, Holtmann is approaching the contest with a mentality of shifting the macro into micro and tempering expectations.
“[Jae’Sean Tate] cares about this program at a really high level, he just wants to do the right thing. So do our other older guys. If that is your focus, it can be overwhelming,” Holtmann said. "You’re certainly giving yourself a better chance than if you have this kind of global or long-term view constantly in your mind about what’s the end game. For us, the end game right now is get better today.”
Whether or not upperclassmen Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate will absorb Holtmann’s philosophy of Zen is another story. Both players are hell bent on Buckeye success, and their early play proves they are here to back it up. Portland is simply a larger stage to display that mentality.
“It’s going to be a big stage, I think it’s going to be the biggest stage we have been on in a while,” Tate said. “We’re just prepping for Gonzaga.”
Bates-Diop, fully recovered from a leg injury that sidelined him for the majority of last season, has been an early revelation. The junior is averaging 19.3 points, 10 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, and 1 steal per game, while shooting 57 percent from the floor and 45 percent from deep. Always touted for a high ceiling and versatile skill set, a unique blend of wing necessity and a full bill of health have Bates-Diop performing at peak powers.
Meanwhile, Tate is doing typical Tate things – scoring, rebounding, and harassing opponents on the defensive end. Offensively, the senior captain is shooting at an incendiary 65 percent clip from the floor while scoring 15.3 points a contest.
As will be a continuing thread throughout the Buckeye season, the keys to a victory over the Bulldogs lie within the freshmen unit. Musa Jallow and Kaleb Wesson have played particularly big minutes, and on a national stage against a prime-time opponent, the cracks may show. If they are up to the task, however, Ohio State just might be able to steal one. Regardless, a strong showing will go a long way toward molding this team into more than just a scrappy, headache inducing, yet ultimately losing squad.
The late-night contest tips off at midnight EST on ESPN2.