Ohio State’s basketball team is good. Really, really good. Like, beating the No. 3 team in the country on their home floor with a last second shot after being down by 14 good. They also dumped the fifth ranked team back in January, if that’s more your style.
Seven (!!!) years ago, during the height of the Aaron Craft/Jared Sullinger/William Buford/Thad Matta era, Ohio State beating Purdue, Michigan State, and pretty much everyone else on their way to the top spot of the Big Ten would have been the expectation. Obviously, this team isn’t that team, or any of those teams that provided so many high points in the Thad Matta era. This team is better than that.
Let me clarify: no, this team is not more talented than most, if not all of the Matta teams, save for maybe the 2004-2005 and 2007-2008 teams (shout out to P.J. Hill), but that’s exactly what makes them different and ultimately better. The 2017-2018 Ohio State Buckeyes have absolutely no business being as good as they are. With only ten scholarship players, including former Michigan walk-on Andrew Dakich and three freshmen who see significant playing time (Kaleb Wesson, Kyle Young and Musa Jallow), no one expected anything from this team, and that is what sets them apart.
It’s impossible to talk about what helps makes this team so good without talking about the star player, and future NBA draft pick that should be named Big Ten Player of the Year at the end of the season: junior forward Keita Bates-Diop. After spending his freshman year as a role player (played about ten minutes a game), Keita started all 33 games as a sophomore, averaging 12 points and serving as Ohio State’s most consistent player. After an injury sidelined him for much of last season (the Buckeyes may have very well made the NIT last year had he been healthy), he’s been making up for lost time this season, leading the Buckeyes with 20 points and 9 rebounds a game. If you’re looking for a star on this team, look no further than KBD.
This isn’t an Evan Turner in 2010 situation, however. While KBD is the face of the team, and an extremely efficient scorer the offense can lean on, it’s the contributions of his fellow starters (C.J. Jackson, Kam Williams, Jae’Sean Tate and Kaleb Wesson), and the role players (Musa Jallow, Kyle Young, Andre Wesson, Micah Potter, and of course, Andrew Dakich) that turned Ohio State into the best team in the Big Ten just a season after going 17-15.
Every single one of those players plays a crucial role in each game Ohio State plays, and when they work together (as they do so well), they’re significantly better than the sum of their parts. The last time an Ohio State team could be described as “overachieving” was more than a decade ago, when Terence Dials, J.J. Sullinger, Je’Kel Foster, Ron Lewis and Jamal Butler led Ohio State to a two seed after winning just 20 games the year prior.
Ohio State doesn’t get to be the underdog very often, be it in football, basketball or anything else. That just comes with the territory of being one of the nation’s most profitable athletic departments. As rare as it may be, when Ohio State does get the chance to overachieve as an underdog, it often yields the most memorable moments, games, and seasons.
The three most enjoyable seasons of Buckeye football in recent memory came in overachieving years: 2002, 2012, and 2014. The same is true for the basketball team, and it’s that feeling of excitement that comes with a team playing above expectation that makes this team so much more enjoyable than almost every season in the past decade.
In just one season, Chris Holtmann (with some help from his players) has taken a soulless, sputtering Buckeye basketball team, and turned it into one of the nation’s best stories, while putting together one of the most exciting, shocking, jubilant seasons in Ohio State history. No matter what Evan Turner or anyone else says, Ohio State is the underdog this season, and we as fans should embrace that, because it won’t last forever. Just as they did under Matta, expectations will shift, and seasons like this one will become the expectation.
Before that happens, please take some time to watch, support, and love this team while we have them. I know I will.