Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop, the current favorite for Big Ten Conference Player of the Year, is a reminder that when watching college basketball players are almost never finished products.
They grow physically. They develop their skills. Teenagers become young men. They gain confidence. They gain wisdom. And in the case of Bates-Diop, they get healthier.
All of those factors seemed to have blossomed this season for the former University High standout to help make the Buckeyes the Big Ten’s most improved team under first-year head coach Chris Holtmann.
No. 17 Ohio State (19-5, 10-1) is second in the league behind Purdue and when the Buckeyes and Illinois (12-11, 2-8) line up at 11 a.m. Sunday at Columbus, Ohio, Bates-Diop's name sits atop the Illini scouting report.
The redshirt junior has earned that honor with a stellar season.
Illini coach Brad Underwood sees a player who had rounded into a talent basketball fans will be watching for years to come. His description is practically an endorsement for the Player of the Year award.
“He’s a pro,” Underwood said. “His body has matured. His physical attributes are scary. He’s 6-7, 6-8 with a wing span that is extremely long. You can tell there’s a guy who has worked on his game.
“He’s shooting at a very high clip. He can beat you off the bounce and can score in the post. He has a very defined game offensively. There are no weaknesses. His body has developed and matured into a guy who is playing with tremendous confidence. He’s a fourth-year junior, 22 years old, and he plays that way.”
Defenses have tried a number of approaches to slow Bates-Diop and to his credit, he hasn’t become flustered by the extra attention.
“I’ve seen double teams and teams shading me to a certain side,” he said. “I just try to recognize that early in the game and figure out how to have an impact. Whatever the game calls for. I don’t have to score for us to win.”
Maybe not, but he usually does. Bates-Diop and Penn State’s Tony Carr share the Big Ten scoring lead at 19.6 points per game.
If Bates-Diop’s coming-out season seems to have delivered him from nowhere, it’s because injuries last season kept him in the shadows.
He played in just nine games and started three. He missed the final 18 games with a stress fracture in his leg. Ohio State slumped to 17-15 overall and 7-11 in the league. Eventually, the school decided to part ways with longtime coach Thad Matta.
Enter Holtmann, who was former Illini coach John Groce’s teammate at Taylor University and the first assistant Groce hired at Ohio University. They remain close friends.
Holtmann was head coach at Butler when Matta and Ohio State agreed to part ways on June 5. Holtmann was named Matta's replacement four days later.
That’s a late date to take over, but with Bates-Diop developing into a star, Holtmann inherited a team ready to make a move back up the Big Ten ladder. He uses a three-guard lineup with two seniors and a junior along with forward Bates-Diop and 6-9, 270-pound freshman Kaleb Wesson in the middle.
Wesson also has Underwood’s attention.
“He’s very light on his feet for a guy his size,” Underwood said. “I love guys who can facilitate offense and when they do it from the interior, man, it’s really hard to guard. You have to make a lot of decisions as a coaching staff how you will guard that.
“He goes over either shoulder, which is rare for a young kid. They are averaging 33, 34 points in the paint and that doesn’t count what he facilitates by catching it down low and passing it out. He has a real ability to pass and make plays.”
As for the Illini, the team has played better since an embarrassing 25-point loss at Wisconsin. Illinois has a two-game winning streak and a refreshed state of mind.
“We’re in the best spirits we’ve been in,” Underwood said Saturday. “Sure, winning cures a lot of ills but they also know that we’re playing better. We’re doing things on a more consistent basis and with that comes confidence.
“We’re turning teams over at a good lick. If we can make shots, we have a whole other level we can go to."