The numbers had been steadily piling up, but the avalanche hadn’t yet hit Ohio State until Michigan State came to town. With wins in seven of their last eight games, the Buckeyes had a chance to knock off the No. 1 Spartans at Value City Arena in early January.
When they did so, thanks in large part to a career-high 32 points from Keita Bates-Diop, the redshirt junior officially transitioned from potential NBA draft early entrant to unlikely to return to campus for a fifth year. At least, that’s how coach Chris Holtmann saw it.
After having suspicions that a leap to the NBA could be in the making after just a few games to start the season, Bates-Diop’s breakout game against the Spartans shifted expectations.
“The Michigan State game, the game was a CBS game and the No. 1 team in the country,” Holtmann said Monday afternoon after Bates-Diop announced he was declaring for the NBA draft with the intent of hiring an agent. “When you see a guy who performs like that on that stage, you’re just really, really happy for that young man. So that’s one (moment).”
To that point in his career, Bates-Diop had scored 20 points in five games against the Spartans. From there, the accolades continued and the successes grew. Bates-Diop topped 20 points in Ohio State’s next two games while earning consecutive Big Ten player of the week awards.
In an early January sit-down interview with The Dispatch, Bates-Diop said he wasn’t focused on the growing talk about his NBA future. Monday, he said it wasn’t until “later in the Big Ten season” that he started to realize what might lie ahead after this season.
“We tried not to talk about the future at all, but as the season started winding down and the team success and the individual play was at a high level it started to become a reality,” he said. “It all accumulated toward the end. There wasn’t a singular moment.”
Holtmann had another one, albeit from a less-heralded game. Having won at Wisconsin and at home against Michigan to open Big Ten play, the Buckeyes hosted William & Mary for a Saturday noon game that wasn’t available on conventional television. With the Tribe ahead 12-10, Holtmann made his first substitution of the game.
He pulled Bates-Diop for sophomore Andre Wesson at the 15:46 mark, several minutes earlier than his typical mid-half break. He returned to the lineup a little more than two minutes later and scored all of his game-high 27 points in the eventual 97-62 Ohio State win.
Asked about the message being sent after the game, Bates-Diop said Holtmann was working to help get him to play with a higher motor at a more consistent rate.
“He’s doing a great job of getting me there,” Bates-Diop said postgame. “It’s on me, obviously, but he’s not afraid to pull me or sit me for any stretch of time if I’m not doing those things I need to be doing. He always keeps me on my toes.”
That moment said plenty to the first-year Ohio State coach, both for this season and beyond.
“I think his response was incredibly telling to me,” Holtmann said. “That’s what I want. I think we realized in that moment this guy is going to be good. It validated in our minds that he was all about the right stuff. You can’t be a really good player and resist coaching. He didn’t resist coaching. He was the opposite. He craved coaching. I think that’s why he’s going to be a really, really good pro.”