ROSEMONT, Ill. — Chris Holtmann has been Keita Bates-Diop’s strongest advocate in what has been a breakout season for the Ohio State junior forward.
But after a night when Bates-Diop finally broke from his recent torrid pace, and the Buckeyes used contributions from his supporting cast members to defeat Northwestern, the OSU coach offered his strongest endorsement to date.
“I think he is an elite player and one of the best players in the country,” Holtmann said after the Buckeyes’ 71-65 win in Allstate Arena, the Wildcats’ temporary home. “For what it’s worth, I don’t look much into awards, but (when) those Wooden things that came out midseason, I could not believe he was not on it.”
Against Northwestern, Bates-Diop finished with 10 points and eight rebounds in 31 minutes of playing time. It’s only because his recent play has been so strong that such a night was viewed as a drop-off.
As the Big Ten player of the week two weeks running, Bates-Diop had topped 20 points in five of his past six games, including four in a row. In those last four games, all in the Big Ten, he had averaged 26.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. Even after the Northwestern game, he leads the Big Ten in scoring at 19.8 points per game and is third in rebounding at 8.8 per game.
Not surprisingly, Bates-Diop also has become the focal point of opposing game plans. Northwestern coach Chris Collins deployed a zone designed to take away Bates-Diop’s mid-range game and force him to play a more physical game than he might like. The result left Collins complimenting Ohio State’s “well-rounded” team.
“We didn’t really have great matchups if we tried to play them man to man,” he said. “He’s a great player and he’s having a fantastic year. I thought we did a pretty good job identifying where he was in the zone and making him take tough shots.”
Bates-Diop was all smiles after the game, dismissing the thought that he was sick or tired and admitting that playing at such a high level is challenging to sustain during the course of a Big Ten season.
“I think we have a really good team,” he said. “I’m not going to have 25-plus or 25 and 10 every night. That’s just not possible. Tonight was one of those nights and my teammates picked me up, Micah (Potter) especially.”
And despite it all, as Holtmann pointed out, Bates-Diop seemed a glaring omission from the list of 25 players named to the midseason watch list Jan. 11 for the John Wooden Award, given annually to the nation’s top collegiate basketball player.
“He’s embraced a role of being an impact player,” Holtmann said. “No one in the country that I’ve seen has (gone) through the kind of stretch he’s had in terms of efficiency. If they have, I don’t follow college basketball enough. It’s unbelievable, and I hope we have a full appreciation for how good he has been in this stretch.”
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