BOISE, Idaho — Your best players need to be the best players in the biggest games.
Not exactly rocket science, but sometimes even the simplest concepts don’t make it through the gray matter. Or the scarlet and gray, for that matter.
There have been times this season when Keita Bates-Diop suffered from athletic amnesia, when the Ohio State junior forgot who he was. For 20 minutes he would show why someday (soon?) he is headed to the NBA.
Then for five or 10 minutes he would lose his identity as chief offensive weapon and get lost in the flow of the offense, like a twig turning in tiny circles as the river rages around it.
Ditto senior Kam Williams, whose game comes and goes like the wind. When the shooting guard is locked in, his jumper is too. But sometimes his focus drifts like his forward-leaning shot.
C.J. Jackson’s offensive output has had its ups and downs as well.
When fully present, however, Bates-Diop, Williams and Jackson can win games. Or at least give you a chance. All three gave it a good run Saturday night in a season-ending 90-84 loss to Gonzaga in a second-round NCAA Tournament game.
It was a comeback to behold. No. 5 seed Ohio State fell behind 15-0 against the No. 4 Bulldogs before the offense finally found its rhythm.
“We had some self-inflicted wounds,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “We needed to settle down and settle in.”
But say this for the Buckeyes, true to their never-pout nature they rallied from what early on looked to be ruination. With better ball movement and with Bates-Diop keeping the Zags honest down low, things opened up for Jackson (18 points) and Williams, who finished with 19.
“You can’t spot a team 15 points,” Bates-Diop said. “Even if it had only been five, we could have recovered.”
Actually, the Buckeyes did recover, taking a 56-54 lead with 10:35 left on a Williams three-pointer. But Gonzaga made more big plays at the end.
Ohio State director of player development Scoonie Penn knows something about coming up big in big games, having guided the Buckeyes to the Final Four in 1999.
“Give our guys a lot of credit. They made big shots and stops tonight,” he said. “I guarantee that (Gonzaga) locker room respects this team.”
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Just as important, the Buckeyes can respect themselves, which wasn’t always the case. There were even times, though fewer and fewer as the season progressed, when Holtmann had to remind Bates-Diop he needed to fulfill his role as the Buckeyes’ best player. Success in March depends on it.
History says so.
In the 1973 NCAA Tournament title game, UCLA’s Bill Walton made 21 of 22 shots for 44 points in the Bruins’ win against Memphis and finished with 41 rebounds total in the final and semifinal.
In the 1956 final, Bill Russell of San Francisco scored 26 points and grabbed 27 rebounds in the win against Iowa; Duke’s Christian Laettner went 10 of 10 from the field and foul line and beat Kentucky as time expired in the 1992 East Regional final.
And there was Stephen Curry, who over 10 days of the 2008 tournament averaged 31.8 points for Davidson.
Let’s not get carried away and place Bates-Diop with that elite company. He finished with 28 points on 10-of-21 shooting, but had some hiccups down the stretch.
But the Focal Point, as Holtmann calls him, did not disappear. And neither did the Buckeyes.
“(Tonight showed) the spirit of this group,” Holtmann said. “It was an amazing group to coach, and an honor to coach them.”