Everyone knows that teamwork makes the dream work, but in college basketball, it still helps to have a go-to player who can hold things down for his team in a reliable way. Last year, Chris Holtmann looked to redshirt junior forward Keita Bates-Diop to keep things moving on the court. Bates-Diop finished the season with Big Ten Player of the Year honors, averaging 19.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. For seven-straight games from Dec. 19-Jan. 14, he was the highest-scoring player on the court for either squad.
With Bates-Diop’s stellar performance last year, it is easy to forget (and, believe me, we have done our best to forget) the miserable sluggery that was the 2016-17 Ohio State basketball season. Bates-Diop happened to miss most of the season with a stress fracture, but no one yet knew that he would turn out to be the star that he ultimately was.
Learning from the Past
Many looked to Jae’Sean Tate, a junior at the time, and Marc Loving in his final season to take the reigns. Tate came to Ohio State as a five-star recruit, while Loving himself was a four-star, former Mr. Ohio Basketball. Despite several years of relying on other players on the court, neither seemed to emerge in the 2016-17 season as leaders in their own right.
All of this goes to say that while it’s important to have a cohesive team unit, things tend to be a lot more certain when there is a star player to go to on the court. However, that doesn’t always have to be the case, especially when one star player raises the level of everyone else.
In the 2011-12 season, Jared Sullinger led his team to a Final Four while averaging 17.5 points per game. But he wasn’t the only scorer on the court. Deshaun Thomas and William Buford had 15.9 and 14.5 points per game, respectively, that season. Aaron Craft, who started every game that year, was just a sophomore at the time, but was already a terror on defense.
However, it’s also easy to look to teams like the one that featured Craft, Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson a year later. After all, that team finished the season ranked seventh in the AP Poll, and that was after Sullinger departed as a first-round NBA Draft pick. In reality, that team had a defensive star in Craft who brought more energy to the floor than he did points, but even Craft was able to rely on consistent scoring from Thomas who averaged nearly 20 per game that season.
Ohio State doesn’t have that defensive star on this team, at least not from first look. Guys like Andre Wesson, C.J. Jackson, Musa Jallow, or Keyshawn Woods could step up and do that, but it probably won’t be on the level of Craft, because Craft was an extremely rare defensive terror.
They also don’t have a Deshaun Thomas to go to on offense. The wing players on this team, from Andre Wesson and Kyle Young to Jaedon LeDee and Justin Ahrens, are either not particularly great on offense — like Wesson and Young — or completely new to the program, like LeDee and Ahrens. The closest thing that this roster has to a true star is Kaleb Wesson, and even that’s more just a projection than a fact as he enters his second collegiate season.
When you have a team like that, lacking a true star on either side of the ball, the responsibility is on the coach to cover up the weakness, and delegate the task of scoring and playing lockdown defense to several good players, rather than one or two great ones.
You have to let players play to their strengths, and rely on great team chemistry to help different play styles gel, because there’s not one or two guys that can hold the team together; like Craft, Sullinger, Thomas, D’Angelo Russell, Bates-Diop, and Tate did on their various teams in the past.
How Ohio State can Win in 2018-19
On this year’s version of the Ohio State basketball team, that means that Jackson, Woods, and Kaleb Wesson will have to handle a lot of the scoring responsibilities. Ohio State will probably be able to get about 20 points from Andre Wesson/Jallow/Young/Micah Potter, and if Kaleb Wesson, Jackson and Woods can all deliver about 15 points each, that’s 65 points per game.
Get ten points from the freshmen off of the bench, and maybe a surprise emergence by Luther Muhammad, and that’s an offense more than capable of competing in the Big Ten.
Defensively, Ohio State can probably roll with more of the same. While Bates-Diop and Tate were both excellent defenders last year, I wouldn’t consider either of them to be defensive stars, and Ohio State had no issue working with that. The Buckeye defense — which centers heavily on pre-rotation, switching, and baiting the opponent into passes that can be jumped by a defender — can still work with this roster. In fact, I’d be willing to say that it may even work better, with the addition of Woods, and what should be some offseason improvement from returning players.
There will be certainly be growing pains with a team seeing significant turnover for the second year in a row. This is a young team, and with no true star, they don’t have a player to lean on when things get tough early on, which they undoubtedly will.
However, great coaching, a steady stable of good players, two veteran guards, and the next great big man at Ohio State all provide plenty of reasons to be optimistic about this team. They probably won’t win the national title this year, but there’s no reason to think that the 2018-19 Buckeyes can’t challenge for, or even win, the Big Ten title.