This 2017-18 season began with a broad and rather uncontroversial consensus that Michigan State was the team to beat in the Big Ten. In addition, it was said in the preseason that Minnesota, Northwestern and Purdue would be tough as well. Lastly, outside the top 25, maybe one of the league's three new coaches could manage to cook up something in his first season -- most likely Archie Miller, at Indiana.
Ohio State? The Buckeyes did not figure in the preseason discussion. Chris Holtmann was a good replacement for Thad Matta, but surely it would take the new coach a while to get his legs under him. Indeed, when OSU lost to Holtmann's old team, Butler, in overtime on a neutral floor on Thanksgiving weekend, it was Holtmann's replacement, LaVall Jordan, who was being talked up after that November meeting.
Things are different in January. Ohio State is 7-0 in the Big Ten and tied with Purdue for first place. The Buckeyes swatted Michigan State aside in an 80-64 win in Columbus earlier this month. As a result, we must now ask a question that no one saw coming. Could this OSU team actually win the Big Ten title in 2018?
It won't be easy. Ohio State's only game against Purdue will be played in West Lafayette on Feb. 7. That alone would give an edge to the Boilermakers, plus the Buckeyes will travel to play a very good Michigan team in Ann Arbor. Purdue, conversely, has already won its game at Crisler Arena.
The schedule would seem to favor the Boilers (even with a road date for them upcoming at Michigan State), but the fact that we're even posing this question with respect to Ohio State qualifies as yet one more major surprise from this wild college basketball season. The Buckeyes have a very real shot at the Big Ten crown, and, after that, a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Like his team, Keita Bates-Diop has blown up beyond all expectations
Bates-Diop appeared in only nine games last season before suffering a stress fracture in his left leg. The last time he logged a full season, in 2015-16, he was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection. A promising player, certainly, but also one who was left off the 10-player All-Big Ten preseason team last fall.
Now, as a junior on the eve of his 22nd birthday, KBD's giving Michigan State's Miles Bridges a good deal of entirely unexpected competition for Big Ten player of the year honors. As a 6-foot-7 stretch-4, Bates-Diop is scoring from each side of the 3-point line while also cleaning the glass for Holtmann's defense. In the game against a Spartans defense that had previously suffocated opposing offenses, he scored 32 points on 12-of-21 shooting from the field.
With Bates-Diop carrying the brunt of the workload on offense, teammates like C.J. Jackson, Kam Williams and Jae'Sean Tate have found plenty of open spaces to their respective and varied likings offensively. Jackson and Williams are shooting a combined 45 percent from beyond the arc this season, and Tate's converting 61 percent of his 2-point tries.
OSU has improved dramatically on both sides of the ball
The year-to-year transformation of Ohio State, both offensively and defensively, has been remarkable. A year ago, this was a foul-prone team that ranked No. 13 in the Big Ten for points allowed per possession. The Buckeyes ended their season losing to Rutgers by nine in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.
This upcoming March holds a good deal more promise for Holtmann's team. It's early in the Big Ten season, but OSU's already showing an ability to win on both offense and defense. The Buckeyes' interior D in particular has been surprisingly strong (though, granted, a game against Rutgers can help those numbers along), and 6-foot-9 freshman Kaleb Wesson was notably poised and effective in 27 minutes against Michigan State's formidable front line.
Still, if there's a concern with the Ohio State defense it might be the manner in which three of their four losses transpired. The OT defeat at the hands of Butler was a defensive slugfest, but, in losses to Gonzaga, Clemson and North Carolina, OSU allowed, on average, a whopping 1.18 points per possession.
This kind of "don't just bend but break utterly and completely on occasion" defense might be a thing of the past for OSU. Nevertheless, it's something to keep an eye on going forward against top-quality opponents.
Holtmann appears to have learned from Villanova
Ohio State is succeeding in some of the same ways that Villanova has the past few years, and it's not too outlandish to wonder whether a former Big East head coach who went a very respectable 2-4 against Jay Wright could have picked up an idea or two.
Like the Wildcats, OSU is a disciplined and veteran team presenting a low-foul lineup wherein 3s can be and are shot by just about any player on the court but where 2s are converted at an exceptionally high rate. The Buckeyes have drained 58 percent of their tries from inside the arc thus far in Big Ten play, easily the best figure in the league. It all feels a bit like Nova West, and that's not a bad compliment to earn.
None of which is to say Purdue or Michigan State are going down without a fight, of course. In fact, as we've seen, the schedule-maker has decreed that a Big Ten title will be something of a challenge for Ohio State. Even so, if we've learned anything from Holtmann and his team, it's to stay open to their surprises.