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Mike Lopresti | | January 11, 2018

Ohio State headlines surprise teams in college basketball

  Ohio State stunned No. 1 Michigan State in Columbus.

How’s that old cliche go? What do you call the downtime at Ohio State between the bowl game and spring practice?

Basketball season.

Actually, the Buckeyes proved long ago they could thrive at both, and here they are again, the surprise of the Big Ten so far. To appreciate where they are now, we should remember where they were.

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Ohio State in the pre-season:

Thad Matta was fired in June, even if he was the winningest coach in school history. A rush job replacement, with Chris Holtmann quickly lured from Butler. A thin roster, with three of the top four scorers gone for various reasons. The bad taste of a dysfunctional 17-15 record that left the Buckeyes out of the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year.

And hardly anyone expecting much this season, either.

Ohio State now:

A 4-0 start in the Big Ten, after a rather thorough 80-64 thrashing of No. 1 Michigan State, and a game against Maryland next on Thursday. A 13-4 overall record. No spot in the top 25, but getting close.

Time for the outside world to change its view on Ohio State’s horizons?

“They can view us the same way they have from the start, we’re fine with that,” Jae’Sean Tate said after the Michigan State game. “We’re not really worried about what people are thinking, we’re just focused on us.

“We all knew we could do it, and that’s where it started.”

But the Big Ten constituency could be allowed a bit of shock at all this. The Ohio State coach is.

“Coaches get surprised. I’m surprised,” Holtmann said. “We’ll see, right? We don’t know at this point. We could go in the tank here the next couple of weeks. We certainly don’t want this moment to define us, and we don’t want it to be the pinnacle of our season. That’s the challenge for us moving forward.

“Certainly I’m surprised with how we have played in stretches. I think our connection and our chemistry has been above and beyond what I maybe anticipated. You never know as a coach, what’s the buy-in going to be? You just don’t know that. Our players deserve a lot of credit. We got here as a coaching staff in June.  We’re not tyrants but we haven’t coached them with kid gloves either, and they’ve accepted it and embraced it.”

If the Buckeyes are going to barge into the Big Ten contender picture like this, maybe we should get to know them a little. Such as . . .

Keita Bates-Diop, who missed most of last season with a leg stress fracture, is the only Big Ten player at the moment averaging 20 points a game. His family is helping raise money for schools to buy automated external defibrillators, like the one that was used by an Illinois high school last year to save the life of a player who went into cardiac arrest at practice. That player was Bates-Diop’s brother, Kai.

Bates-Diop is also one of three graduates on the roster, along with Tate and Andrew Dakich, who transferred in from – heh-heh – Michigan. Dakich’s banked-in 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer helped blow the bugle charge against the Spartans.

Tate hit all 10 shots against Northeastern earlier this season. His 57.2 shooting percentage is third-best in the nation among players 6-4 or shorter.

Ohio State has played both participants of last April’s national championship game, losing 86-72 to North Carolina and 86-59 to Gonzaga.

Holtmann is becoming pretty good at beating No. 1 teams. Butler knocked off Villanova last season. Now Michigan State, which should do wonders to keep his honeymoon going in Columbus.

“It’s still a little surreal at times. I think you go into the year not sure what to expect,” he said. “It feels really good but I think as a coach, I hate to say it, it’s going to sound (New England Patriots coach Bill) Belichickian, but we really want to try to move as quickly as possible to the next game.”

The seventh game of the season, at the PK80 in Portland, Holtmann played the one team he wanted to avoid this season. Butler. The Bulldogs, barely five months after he left them, beat his Buckeyes on a late shot in overtime. Oh well.

So, the pertinent question. Is Ohio State back?

Tate: “There’s a lot of games to go, man. We want to keep striving. We want to continue to go out there and prove ourselves.

“I’ve said it in the past and I’ve jinxed us. I’m not going to say it.”

Bates-Diop: “We’re on the right track, I’ll say that.”

Holtmann: “We’ll see. We’ve had some tough losses and been humbled at times this year. That’s probably not what the headline will be at my house. I’m really curious to see how we respond these next couple of games. We’ll see what kind of maturity we have.

“Certainly when you have a win like (Michigan State), it does maybe alert more people and more teams in your league.  If we’re not good enough to handle that, then we’ll find out.”

Ohio State has partners-in-surprise in the other top conferences, who all have unexpected packages.

Washington in the Pac-12 . . .

The Huskies went 2-16 in the conference last season and finished with a 13-game losing streak – somehow doing that with the No 1 pick in the NBA draft, Markelle Fultz. No wonder they were tabbed to finish 10th in the league. Enter new coach Mike Hopkins, Jim Boeheim’s long-time Syracuse assistant.

Now they’re 12-4 overall with a win in Kansas City against Kansas – their first victory in history against a top-two team on the road, after going 0-23. The Huskies are also 2-1 in the league, including winning at USC. The karma is good. The other night, Washington was outrebounded 40-25 by Washington State, but outscored the Cougars 50-24 in the paint and won 70-65. Meaning only 20 points came outside the paint.

Auburn in the SEC . . .

Does this sound like a program that has seen one winning record in eight seasons, no NCAA Tournament in the past 14, and was forecast to finish ninth in the SEC? The Tigers are 3-0 in the conference for the first time in 15 years, 15-1 for the first time in 18, and have won 13 in a row.

Amazing? Not to the coach.

“I looked at the top-25 the other day,” Bruce Pearl said. “There’s TCU. We beat them last year. There’s Texas Tech, we beat them last year. There’s Xavier, we beat them (three) years ago. There’s Arkansas, Tennessee, or Kentucky. We have won those games. Oklahoma, we beat them last year. It’s not just a this-year thing. The past has at least put us in position.”

Texas Tech in the Big 12 . . .

A December 36-point mashing of Northwestern was an early indicator of what the Red Raiders were up to. Then they went to Lawrence and beat Kansas by 12. Picked to finish seventh in the Big 12, they’ve beaten four ranked teams and are 14-2 overall and 3-1 in the conference, while shooting more than 100 points higher than their opponents (48.6 percent compared to 37.7 percent, as of Wednesday).

Depth is a factor, too. In four Big 12 games, Texas Tech has a 147-42 advantage in points off the bench.

Clemson in the ACC . . .

There are 15 teams in the league. Clemson was picked to finish ahead of two of them. Things have changed, with the Tigers’ first 3-0 start in the ACC in 11 years, and a 14-1 record overall. A heady beginning for a program that has won one NCAA Tournament game this century.

The Tigers are on a 10-game roll, with one of the victims being . . . Ohio State. The great circle of life, with the surprise teams.

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