Being the best player on the court never brought out the bravado in Keita Bates-Diop at University High School. Whatever bravado he had was tucked deep within his 6-foot-7 frame.
Sometimes you wished he’d tap into it … throw down a dunk and thump his chest, swish a 3-pointer and pump his fist.
That wasn’t him.
His senior year, U High went to overtime against Plainfield South in the State Farm Holiday Classic opening round. Bates-Diop scored six of the Pioneers’ first eight points in overtime and assisted on the other basket. U High survived 68-60.
Bates-Diop made two free throws, scored on a drive, assisted on a layup and slammed home a dunk in the first three minutes of OT.
Asked about taking the game over, he said calmly, “In the closing moments of the fourth quarter and overtime, it’s always a time for players like me to step up.”
So yes, he was aware of the expectations. He felt the pressure and responsibility.
“It’s all in how you deal with it,” he would say later. “I deal with it by staying calm and humble.”
Bates-Diop has been through a lot since that record-setting U High career. A stress fracture sidelined him much of last season at Ohio State, resulting in surgery and a medical redshirt. Then there was a coaching change, with Butler’s Chris Holtmann replacing Thad Matta.
A redshirt junior, Bates-Diop is a veteran presence on a young team. After double-doubles in the first two games, Bill Landis of Cleveland.com wrote that Bates-Diop “looked like the best player on the floor.”
We’re familiar with that. So is Bates-Diop, though he won’t shout it into a microphone anytime soon.
That isn’t him.
Landis quoted Holtmann as saying Bates-Diop has “a quiet confidence to him that I really appreciate.”
We’re familiar with that, too.
From the moment he found stardom as a U High sophomore, Bates-Diop has been unique among players with his skill set. He lets his game be his voice and now, in his fourth year in Columbus, it is beginning to grow louder.
Bates-Diop heads into Wednesday’s home game vs. Clemson averaging team highs of 16.9 points and 10.3 rebounds. His .506 field goal percentage includes 44.1 percent accuracy from 3-point range (15 of 34). He has made 13 of 15 free throws (.867) and blocked a team-best 11 shots.
Bates-Diop has led the 5-2 Buckeyes in rebounding in all seven games, posting five double-doubles. After a season-opening 19 points and 11 rebounds against Robert Morris, he told reporters, “This is what I’m looking for. I’m healthy. I’m feeling great.”
Three double-doubles came against Robert Morris, Radford and Texas Southern, teams never on a list of college basketball heavyweights. However, the most recent were against Stanford and Butler, an indication this could be the type of season Bates-Diop, and Buckeyes fans, have hoped for since his arrival.
Bates-Diop averaged 3.8 points and 2.1 rebounds as a freshman, coming off the bench in all 33 games he played. He started all 33 games of his sophomore year, averaging 11.8 points and 6.4 rebounds.
He entered last season poised for good things, but the stress fracture in his left leg knocked him out of the final 18 games. He was hobbled prior to that, making three starts, and managed just 9.7 points and 5.2 rebounds in nine games.
Bates-Diop underwent surgery and clearly worked hard in his rehab. The numbers say it, even if he won’t.
This could be an all-Big Ten caliber season for a guy we saw earn first-team all-state honors three years running. He could be the difference between a difficult Ohio State season and a surprising one.
It will be interesting to watch it play out, though if it’s bravado you want, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
It always has been.