NEW YORK – It feels like nitpicking of a team that has won seven straight games and 12 of its last 13, but Ohio State’s third road game of the week marked the third tough shooting night for Keita Bates-Diop.
Now with his own specialized page in the team’s official game notes billing him as an "Award Candidate," the junior forward continued his breakout season with his eighth double-double of the season for the Buckeyes. Bates-Diop scored a game-high 17 points and pulled down a game-high 12 rebounds as Ohio State fended off Minnesota, 67-49, at Madison Square Garden, but it took him some time to get there.
Against the Golden Gophers, Bates-Diop was 7 for 21 (33.3 percent) from the floor and missed all six of his three-point attempts. It was the third straight game in which he shot worse than 50 percent from the floor. Although the Buckeyes keep winning, Bates-Diop needed 19 shots to score 20 points at Rutgers on Jan. 14, 12 shots to score 10 points at Northwestern on Wednesday and 21 to reach 17 today.
It’s reasonable to expect that Bates-Diop’s numbers will dip somewhat as the season progresses, and it’s clear teams are being more physical with him. I asked coach Chris Holtmann about Bates-Diop’s recent stretch and wondered if his mechanics had changed at all given that he appears to occasionally be fading back with his jumper.
"I think he’s getting great attention and activity from the opposition, as to be expected," Holtmann said. "I think people are being really physical with him, to be expected. I don’t know that he always had the patience today that he needed to have. Usually when you’re not patient it can lead to inefficiency, but I thought he had a great impact on the game in other ways.
"I just think it’s impossible to expect the kind of efficiency and numbers throughout a season when you’re getting the attention that he’s getting. I didn’t expect it. I’ve got to try to put him in some spots a little bit better hopefully and he’s got to embrace the physicality that people are attacking him with right now."
It’s certainly a fair point. In Big Ten wins against Iowa, Michigan State and Maryland, Bates Diop was 10 for 17, 12 for 21 and 10 for 15, respectively, from the floor. In his last three games, he is 19 for 52 (36.5 percent) overall and only 2 of 16 (12.5 percent) from three.
And yet, at 17-4 overall, Ohio State has already matched its win total from a year ago. The Buckeyes are finding ways to win even if Bates-Diop’s shooting efficiency has slipped recently. They have won their last five games where he has shot worse than 50 percent from the floor after losing the first three of the season.
"I liked our defense," Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said.
Their contributions weren’t pronounced on the stat sheet, but in the eyes of Holtmann, Ohio State got some lift from a trio of reserves today.
Freshman guard Musa Jallow, who still won’t turn 18 for about two more weeks, did not take a shot but had two rebounds, two assists and two blocks in 13 minutes. He was active defensively, using his natural athleticism to deflect passes and frustrate the Minnesota offense.
In 22 minutes, sophomore forward Andre Wesson was 1 of 2 from the floor for two points and added two rebounds, one assist and one steal. After leading the team in scoring at Northwestern three days ago, sophomore center Micah Potter had four points and three rebounds – all on the offensive end – in only nine minutes.
"I thought we had some really good minutes today from our bench," Holtmann said. "Musa, in particular, I thought he gave us really solid minutes. I thought that Micah gave us some quality. I thought Wesson gave us some really quality minutes. Andre was really important for us in those defensive stretches, Andre and Musa. Maybe as critical as any time all year, those two guys in particular. In order to be good, we’re going to need to continue to get that."
One other reserve – freshman forward Kyle Young – offered the exclamation point on the game when he stole the ball from Isaiah Washington, pushed it up the court and threw down a two-handed dunk from the left side of the rim for the final points of the night.
Senior forward Jae’Sean Tate nearly brought the place down with a thunderous, one-handed dunk attempt during the second half. The only problem was that he couldn’t quite convert the right-handed slam, and after the game he explained why.
"It kind of happened fast," he said. "I saw Kaleb (Wesson), he sealed like two defenders. The whole game it was messing me up because I kept lining up in the NBA spot on free throws. The lane, the boxes. When I took off, I could’ve gotten maybe one more step in. They were like, ‘You took off from the wood.’ Next time I need to come a little closer to the paint."
Holtmann, seated to Tate’s left, replied, "Please do."
Both teams were playing their third consecutive road game. Minnesota, though, didn’t go home in between games at Penn State (Monday), Maryland (Thursday) and today. He was outspoken this week in the unfairness of the Golden Gophers being forced to give up a home game for this neutral-court game, and afterward didn’t have much to add on the situation when I asked if he had voiced his displeasure at the location of the game.
"I did this week," he said. "They didn’t listen. I don’t try to complain much. I’m very appreciative of the job I have. To be 35 years (old) and be coaching in the Big Ten, I know it’s not easy to handle all the scheduling."
Holtmann said the Buckeyes factored Minnesota fatigue into their game plan. They, too, were playing their third straight road game – Rutgers on Sunday, Northwestern on Wednesday – but did go home in between games.
"I don’t think we were always at our best today, but I give Minnesota credit for that," he said. "We were well aware that there was probably going to be some fatigue on their part. You can’t not factor that in to some degree given their schedule here. We feel like it’s something we’re trying to monitor as well given, I’ve never been part of a stretch where we’ve had four games in eight days. Richard’s probably feeling the same way as far as how do you get stuff done and be leery of your guys’ bodies. Our staff does a great job, but we did sense that there was probably going to be some fatigue on their part."
"I would love to take credit for that, but absolutely zero credit belongs to me on that. I think our guys have relaxed and stepped up. It’s great to see JT make 6 out of 7. That’s a great night for him. Coach Holtmann deserves zero credit for that. They have stepped up and made plays. I do want them to know we have confidence in their ability. When you’ve got a guy that’s as good a shooter as Keita and C.J. we want those guys to the line as much as possible. We also have a big fella in Kaleb who makes free throws at a pretty good rate, particularly for a freshman big." – Holtmann, on Ohio State’s improved free-throw shooting this season.