Regardless of roster, there is one certainty in a Chris Holtmann lineup. The first-year Ohio State coach, like many evolving coaches in the basketball community, has often said that after a point guard and perhaps a center, the rest of a lineup is increasingly interchangeable in today’s game.
As a case in point, Holtmann posed a question Wednesday.
“What position does LeBron play?” he said. “What position does Draymond Green play? We all understand this, that there’s great value in versatility in today’s game, tremendous value.”
The topic is relevant to Ohio State largely due to the strong start to the season from junior Keita Bates-Diop, who is the first Buckeyes player to open with consecutive double-doubles in seven seasons. Listed at 6 feet 7 and 235 pounds, Bates-Diop is a centerpiece to Holtmann’s plans.
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A big part of what makes him so valuable is his ability to affect the game from multiple positions — and, in the eyes of his coach, most importantly on the defensive end.
“The real value gets added when you can guard multiple positions as well,” Holtmann said. “I think certainly Keita is exhibit ‘A’ on that. I think you need a point guard that can run your team and run your system and then beyond that it can be pretty interchangeable, really.
“I’ve also played two forwards and two guards that are four interchangeable pieces at times. That’s what a guy like Keita brings.”
It’s not a foreign concept for Bates-Diop. Former coach Thad Matta consistently praised his length and versatility, and had leg injuries not caused Bates-Diop to take a medical redshirt last season, there’s an above-average chance Matta would still have his job.
What has been different this season is that in addition to playing on the wing and on the block, Bates-Diop has played some center as Holtmann has occasionally used a smaller-but-quicker lineup.
“It’s a little different (this season) just because I think I’m being asked to shoulder a little bit more in terms of positionless basketball,” Bates-Diop said. “I play a lot of different positions and I guard all positions, pretty much. It’s a little bit different but we’ve been working through it this preseason and first few games to get more comfortable with it.”
Offensively, Bates-Diop said the biggest adjustment has been having the ball in his hands more often than in years past, “so I have to make better decisions than I did in the past.”
Holtmann said he wouldn’t want Bates-Diop guarding a traditional center for extended stretches, pointing out that asking that of him would wear him down. Through two games, Bates-Diop has played in 68.8 percent of Ohio State’s minutes, and his time against Robert Morris in the season opener was limited once the Buckeyes had the result in hand.
Of the 26 lineups used by the Buckeyes this season, he has appeared in 15 of them. Of those 15, four have seen him manning the center position. But Holtmann shot down the idea that he was asking too much on defense from one of his top offensive players.
“No,” he said. “He has an expectation he needs to be good, if we’re going to have any kind of a season. He knows he’s going to have to be good on that end as well. Will he be our leading scorer a lot of nights? Probably, but he’s also going to need to be maybe our leading defensive rebounder and a guy that is really sound defensively too.
“It’s a lot but that’s what juniors and seniors and potential all-league players, that’s what they do, right? They impact the game in both ways and they do it consistently. The guys that don’t usually aren’t all-league guys and I think he’s got that potential.”