BOISE, Idaho — Chris Holtmann hadn’t been the Ohio State men’s basketball coach for more than a few hours, but he already knew what the expectations were for his immediate situation. With every indication, including those given by his new boss, athletic director Gene Smith, pointing toward a significant rebuilding project, Holtmann instead dug in and made a promise to his new team.
Any rebuilding that would take place for the Buckeyes would happen within the framework of putting together an acceptable season for a beleaguered senior class. In other words, this 2017-18 season was going to be for Jae’Sean Tate, for Keita Bates-Diop (redshirt year notwithstanding) and for Kam Williams.
When it finally came to a close with a second-round NCAA Tournament loss to Gonzaga, a red-eyed Tate proclaimed that mission accomplished. A legacy had been set.
“We were supposed to be done a month ago, and to be able to come here and compete against a team that’s going to the Sweet Sixteen, this team, we set the standard,” Tate said. “We ended up coming up short, but I think the way we fought this year, we put Ohio State back on the map, and I couldn’t be prouder.”
Tate and Williams are out of eligibility. Bates-Diop could still return but is mulling a move to the NBA, where he is widely regarded as a late first-round pick. Although there were significant bumps along the way, all three played integral roles in leading the Buckeyes back to the NCAA Tournament and their first March Madness win since their freshman season of 2015.
Williams averaged 20.5 points per game in the tournament and shook off a late-season suspension to again become a key contributor. Tate, described as the heart and soul of the team, was named second-team all-Big Ten and accepted a lesser scoring role as Bates-Diop played his way to the conference player of the year award.
Combined with graduate transfer Andrew Dakich, who played meaningful minutes for the first time in his career and was a vital locker room presence, the group helped Holtmann kick things off with a bang.
“Hopefully we’ll have a time to reflect on it, because I do think there is a real significant foundation set, and certainly we as coaches had something to do with that,” the coach said, “but as much as anything I reflect on the example those older guys set for, ‘This is what Buckeye basketball is going to look like now, and it’s what it should look like in the future.’ ”
Should Bates-Diop not return next season, the Buckeyes as currently constructed would be a youth-laden roster with just one senior in C.J. Jackson and two juniors in Micah Potter and Andre Wesson. It will be up to them to take the lessons imparted by this season’s group and build on them.
Williams had some advice for the group.
“Myself, JT, Keita, we could’ve left just like everybody else, but we stuck with it,” he said. “I feel like that’s what winning programs are all about. That’s the blueprint we want to have going forward with the young guys and the recruits that we have coming in. We just want everybody in the family to be tough and be resilient and be connected. If it doesn’t happen immediately, just keep fighting, just keep chipping away just like the (Gonzaga) game.”