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Pac-12 Conference Reset: How many teams go dancing?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy, and what is left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Pac-12.

MIDSEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tra Holder, Arizona State

Having improved statistically in each of his first three seasons at Arizona State, Holder has made another major leap forward as a senior. Averaging 21.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game, Holder is doing this while shooting 46.7 percent from the field, 45.8 percent from three and 83.1 percent from the foul line. It’s one thing to be given the green light to make plays, as is the case for Arizona State’s guards under head coach Bobby Hurley. It’s another to do so at a high level and help lead a team through non-conference play undefeated.

THE ALL PAC-12 FIRST TEAM

  • TRA HOLDER, ARIZONA STATE
  • ALLONZO TRIER, ARIZONA: For all the critiques of Trier following last season’s Sweet 16 exit, he’s been incredibly efficient as a junior. Trier’s averaging 21.2 points per game while shooting 56.2 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from beyond the arc.
  • AARON HOLIDAY, UCLA: This pick was a tough one, because Arizona State’s Shannon Evans II has a very good argument as well. However Holiday’s also performed well thus far, averaging 17.6 points, 5.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game.
  • DEANDRE AYTON, ARIZONA: To say that Ayton may be the toughest individual matchup in the Pac-12 would be a conservative statement. The 7-foot-1 freshman is averaging 19.5 points and 11.4 rebounds per game while shooting 61.7 percent from the field.
  • REID TRAVIS, STANFORD: While the Cardinal have struggled thus far,
    going 6-7 in non-conference play, Travis has been one of the Pac-12’s most productive front court players. The redshirt junior is averaging 21.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, and he’s shooting 52.7 percent from the field in doing so.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA:Arizona, Arizona State, USC, UCLA, Oregon
  • NIT: Utah, Washington
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON:Colorado, Oregon State, Stanford, Washington State, California
Tra Holder (David Becker/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. OFF-COURT ISSUES CHANGED THE EQUATION FOR MULTIPLE SCHOOLS: One had to have the feeling that this would be an interesting season in the Pac-12 dating back to late-September, as the still-ongoing FBI investigation saw two teams have assistant coaches arrested and later indicted (Arizona’s Emanuel Richardson and USC’s Tony Bland). Add in UCLA losing three freshmen due to their decision to shoplift while in China, and non-conference play has been an adventure to say the least.

While Arizona hasn’t lost a player due to the FBI investigation USC has, as versatile sophomore guard DeAnthony Melton continues to sit as the school looks into things. And UCLA’s rotation is three players lighter as Cody Riley and Jalen Hill will sit out the entire season and LiAngelo Ball will be playing professionally in Lithuania. For all this turmoil recent results suggest that each team should be OK, however. Arizona has won seven straight, USC won the Diamond Head Classic and UCLA picked up a win over Kentucky. But merely being “OK” may not equal making a deep run in March, which all three programs have the goal of doing.

2. CONSIDERED A TOURNAMENT TEAM BEFORE THE SEASON STARTED, ARIZONA STATE MAY BE EVEN MORE THAN THAT: There are only three undefeated teams in college basketball, and to the surprise of many the Sun Devils are in that class (Villanova and TCU being the others). Given the talent and experience back on the perimeter in Tra Holder, Shannon Evans II and Kodi Justice, to see Bobby Hurley’s team as an NCAA tournament squad was not far-fetched. But thanks to the combination of holdovers and newcomers, the Sun Devils have the look of a team that can play deep into March.

Romello White has been an impact addition after sitting out last season, and the same can be said of fellow forward De’Quon Lake. Those two combined to average 24.2 points and 14.9 rebounds per game in non-conference play, and while his numbers may not jump off the page Vitaliy Shibel’s contributions should not be overlooked, either. Adding Mickey Mitchell — and eventually Kimani Lawrence — improves Arizona State’s front court depth. Lastly, we cannot forget to note the impact that freshman Remy Martin’s had on the perimeter. The energetic newcomer can be an absolute pest on the perimeter defensively, and he’s also averaging 9.9 points per game. If they can improve defensively and on the boards, Arizona State should (at minimum) contend in the Pac-12.

3. THERE’S CLEAR SEPARATION IN THE CONFERENCE PECKING ORDER: While there have been some surprising results produced by teams expected to finish in the bottom half of the conference, most notably Washington’s win over Kansas and Washington State winning the Wooden Legacy, there have also been a host of losses that would give one pause when considering whether or not to believe in those teams. As a result, entering conference play it appears as if there are five surefire NCAA tournament teams with the rest either being questionable or worse.

Washington State followed up the Wooden Legacy with losses to UC Davis, Idaho and UTEP, Oregon State has losses to Long Beach State and Kent State on its ledger, Colorado’s lost to Colorado State and San Diego, and both California and Stanford begin league play below .500. Washington may have the best shot of any of those teams of making a run at the NCAA tournament bubble, as none of its three losses (Providence, Virginia Tech and Gonzaga) would be considered “bad.” But the pickings are slim, which in addition to hurting the bottom of the Pac-12 could hurt bubble teams in search of quality wins in the months of February and March.

Deandre Ayton (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. ARIZONA STATE’S STAYING POWER: The Sun Devils’ 12-0 start to the season has certainly been impressive, with wins over Kansas and Xavier being the headliners. But for a program that last reached the NCAA tournament in 2014, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Arizona State will be able to sustain this run of form and at the very least contend in the Pac-12. As noted above there is some work to be done on the defensive end of the floor, as Arizona State is ranked 122nd in adjusted defensive efficiency per kenpom.com.

The biggest reason for those struggles: defensive rebounding, as Arizona State is rebounding just 68.6 percent of its opponents’ missed shots. That figure ranks 11th in the Pac-12, with Washington (67.4) being the only team that’s been worse. Mickey Mitchell, who has a personal defensive rebounding percentage of 23.1 in his limited time on the floor, should help in this regard. Addressing the rebounding issue could be the difference between going to the NCAA tournament and simply winning a game or playing deep into the month of March.

2. WILL DE’ANTHONY MELTON BE ALLOWED TO PLAY?: USC managed to rebound from its overtime loss to Princeton by winning the Diamond Head Classic, with tournament MVP Bennie Boatwright and sophomore guard Jonah Mathews both looking healthier after having been hampered by injuries prior to the Trojans’ trip to Hawaii. But this is a team that still misses the contributions of Melton, a versatile guard who can have an impact for this team on both ends of the court.

Defensively, Melton has both the size and athleticism to defend multiple positions on the perimeter. Offensively, he can operate with or without the basketball in his hands. Simply put, Melton can be a “mixing agent” for a team that really doesn’t have that kind of player at this point in time despite its wealth of talent. Will USC ultimately clear Melton to return to the court? And if that happens, how prepared will Melton be to have an impact once on the floor? USC has the tools to contend in the Pac-12 without Melton, but his return would certainly improve their chances of winning the league.

3. CAN OREGON INSERT ITSELF INTO THE CONFERENCE CONVERSATION?: Given the fact that Oregon lost six of its top seven scorers from last season’s Final Four team, it should come as no surprise that the current group of Ducks needed some time to adjust not only to Dana Altman’s system but to each other as well. Oregon’s field goal and three-point percentages are about where they were a season ago, with this year’s group shooting 47.9 percent from the field (48.0 last season) and 37.7 percent from three (38.0).

After going through a stretch in which it lost three of four games, Oregon has won five straight to wrap up non-conference play. While the win at Fresno State is the only result that will make an impression from an NCAA profile standpoint, it’s important to note that was a game the Ducks trailed by 12 early in the second half. Payton Pritchard has taken a step forward as a sophomore, and newcomers such as Elijah Brown and Troy Brown have looked more comfortable of late. There’s also Kenny Wooten, who’s elicited comparisons to Jordan Bell with his production defensively (3.2 bpg) while also being an effective finisher around the basket.

As part of the quintet of teams in the league most likely to go dancing, can Oregon be a Pac-12 title contender? If they continue to grow together, it’s certainly possible.

Aaron Holiday (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. ARIZONA WINS THE PAC-12 OUTRIGHT: The Wildcats did not play well at the Battle 4 Atlantis, but it’s important to remember that Rawle Alkins was out with a broken foot. Since the trip to the Bahamas the Wildcats have won seven straight, the last four with Alkins in the lineup. His return gives Arizona a power wing who can more than supplement what Allonzo Trier and DeAndre Ayton bring to the table. And the supporting cast, most notably Dusan Ristic, has become more comfortable with their respective roles of late.

That being said, the offense isn’t the concern for Sean Miller which is a bit of a departure from seasons past. It’s the defense, partially a byproduct of have two players who are most effective at the center position (Ayton and Ristic) on the court at the same time for significant stretches of time. They’ve become more comfortable with each other defensively, which will be a key moving forward. If that continues to happen and Arizona gets better at defending the three, they’ve got the talent needed to win the Pac-12 title outright. And the prediction here is that this will happen.

2. WASHINGTON JUST MISSES OUT ON AN NCAA BID: There wasn’t much expected of the Huskies in the first season of Mike Hopkins’ tenure as head coach, but the Huskies have been a positive surprise in non-conference play. Of course there’s the win over Kansas in Kansas City, one of the league’s most impressive non-conference victories. And even though the Huskies had some close calls, none of their losses were particularly damaging. For that reason Washington enters conference play in better shape to potentially earn an NCAA bid than many anticipated back in October.

That all being said, even with the play of veterans such as Noah Dickerson, David Crisp and Mathysse Thybulle and freshman Jaylen Nowell, Washington’s struggles on the defensive end of the floor will be why this team lands in the NIT. Opponents are averaging nearly 76 points per game, and Washington is ranked in the two hundreds nationally in both effective field goal percentage defense (52.3; 223rd) and defensive rebounding percentage (67.4; 287th). Washington has the talent to be a middle of the pack team in the Pac-12, but if they’re to do what few expect and reach the NCAA tournament this team has to get better defensively.

3. SOMEONE FROM A TEAM IN THE BOTTOM HALF OF THE LEAGUE CONTENDS FOR PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: The pick for the Pac-12’s top played in non-conference play here is Arizona State’s Tra Holder, and one can find a host of worthy contenders from other top teams in the conference. Shannon Evans II, Allonzo Trier, DeAndre Ayton and Aaron Holiday are just some of the contenders from teams that at the very least should hear their names called on Selection Sunday.

While those are the teams that tend to produce Player of the Year winners, with voters generally preferring to reward team success, there are some options on teams that may not finish in the top half of the conference worth considering as well. Stanford’s Reid Travis and Oregon State’s Tres Tinkle (18.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.2 apg) are two possibilities, and with the conference going with a 10-member first team at season’s end at bare minimum both should land on that list.

Weekend Preview: Big East showdown headlines an interesting slate of games

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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

*(NOTE: Lines are not posted for Saturday or Sunday games as of publication. Spreads referenced are via Kenpom.com)

No. 11 XAVIER at No. 19 SETON HALL (-1), Sat. 2:30 p.m. (FOX)

The only game this weekend featuring two teams that are currently ranked in the top 25, Xavier and Seton Hall square off in a battle of programs trending in opposite directions. Now that Trevon Bluiett has rediscovered his shooting stroke, the Musketeers have reeled off back-to-back wins, including a beatdown of then-No. 25 Creighton. Seton Hall, on the other hand, lost by a combined 37 points at Marquette and Creighton in the last 11 days and struggled with a Georgetown team that was down 44 points at home against Villanova.

  • PREDICTION: Xavier’s new starting lineup will be interesting. The Musketeers are much more offensively oriented right now, but Kerem Kanter and Naji Marshall are not exactly known for their defense and physicality. Seton Hall has a big, old, tough and strong front line. I think they get this win they badly needed in front of a packed out. Seton Hall (-1)

No. 14 ARIZONA (-5) at STANFORD, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (CBS)

First place in the Pac-12 is on the line as 5-1 Arizona squares off with 5-1 Stanford. And yes, you read that correctly. In their last five games in league play, the Cardinal have swept the LA schools at home, the Washington schools on the road and beaten Arizona State in their place. Now they get the best team in the Pac-12. Stanford is healthy and playing the best basketball they’ve played in a long, long time.

  • PREDICTION: If Stanford is getting five points at home I am all over the Cardinal. The problem is that I don’t think they will be. KenPom’s projections don’t factor in that Stanford is healthy and hot. I think the line will be closer to Stanford (-2), and I would still probably take them. Stanford (-5)

FLORIDA at No. 18 KENTUCKY (-3), Sat. 8:15 p.m.

This matchup is fascinating. Two teams that still have quite figured things out that play polar opposite styles of basketball. Florida is loaded with quick, veteran guards that fire up threes. Kentucky is loaded big, athletic forwards that can’t really shoot. Coming off of a loss at South Carolina, I think this game is probably more important for Kentucky, who finally looks like they are going to be healthy.

  • PREDICTION: Can Kentucky overwhelm Florida with their size or will the Gators exploit the mismatches with their guards? That answer really comes down to whether or not the Gators get hot from deep. I’m going to guess that they will since they have a tendency to show up in big games. Florida (+3)

WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO WATCH?

  • No. 1 Villanova (-17) at UConn, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (CBS): The big question in this game for me, beyond “Will UConn lose by enough for UConn to fire Kevin Ollie on the spot?”, is whether or not Villanova is the elite team in college basketball that we swear doesn’t exist. Villanova (-17)
  • No. 7 Wichita State (-1) at Houston, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPNU): The Shockers have turned into a defensive liability out of nowhere, and on Saturday they will be traveling to visit a Houston team that badly needs this win. Wichita State (-1)
  • No. 4 Oklahoma (-3) at Oklahoma State, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN): Trae Young hasn’t been right for a couple of weeks, and now he gets a rival on the road. Is this the game that he figures it out? Oklahoma (-3)
  • BAYLOR at No. 10 KANSAS (-8), Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN): Kansas has actually had some issues at home this season, more than they’ve had on the road. Baylor tends to play the Jayhawks tough. Is this a letdown spot after that massive win at West Virginia? Kansas (-8)

No. 10 Jayhawks back on top of Big 12 with fresh approach

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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — The hallmarks of Kansas under Bill Self over the years have been inside-outside post play and gritty defense, the kind of in-your-shorts man-to-man that leaves opponents gasping for air.

That trusted formula has produced 13 straight Big 12 championships.

But if the No. 10 Jayhawks are going to break a tie with the UCLA teams of the 1960s and ’70s for the most consecutive conference titles, their formula will look quite different this season: They are going to pour in 3-pointers, race around the court and simply outscore their foes.

“I do think you can get tougher. I do think you can get harder. I do think you can become more competitive and learn how to compete as you go,” Self said, “but the reality of it is we’re not changing right now playing four guards. Our second-best rebounder is 6-foot-5, 180 pounds. We’re not changing that. We’re not changing our next-best rebounder weighs 200 pounds. We’re not changing that fact.

“We’re playing four really average-sized guards,” Self said. “We’re not going to change that.”

So, best to adapt to it.

It helps that those four guards — Devonte Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Lagerald Vick and Malik Newman — form one of the best backcourts in the nation. Graham is a do-everything floor general, Mykhailiuk one of the best sharpshooters in the nation, Vick the most athletic of the bunch and Newman is capable of getting to the rim with as quick of a first step as anybody in the league.

It also helps that they’re experienced: Graham and Mykhailiuk are seniors with three title rings on their fingers, Vick is a junior and Newman is a third-year sophomore who redshirted last season.

Together, they’ve led the Jayhawks (15-3, 5-1) to four consecutive wins, including road wins over then-No. 16 TCU and sixth-ranked West Virginia. They’ve pushed Kansas back to the top of the league standings headed into Saturday’s game against Baylor, and back into the discussion of a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament when the bracket is revealed in about six weeks.

In other words, they have Kansas right where it is accustomed to being.

But the route has been much different, and that was evident in the Jayhawks’ comeback victory over the Mountaineers on Monday night. Graham and Mykhailiuk combined for 20 of their final 26 points, most of them on 3s and pull-up jumpers — each of them knocked down three from beyond the arc.

The comeback in years past would have featured a big man such as Darrell Arthur or Thomas Robinson in the post, or an elite guard such as Frank Mason III going right to the rim.

Different styles, even if the results have been the same.

“I think we assume some things because of the past,” Self said. “You look at the past, I mean, Landen Lucas was tough. We’re not replacing him with the same toughness. Josh Jackson was a monster. He was an assassin. We’re not replacing him with the same type of mentality. Certainly, you can’t match Frank’s mentality in that area. Which is OK. We were so spoiled with that in the past.”

Those past teams may have had bruising big men, tough guard play and pure scorers all over the floor, and they may have been one of the best defensive teams in the country. But they also had deficiencies, and in many cases, they are the same areas where this year’s team excels.

The Jayhawks have already hit 195 shots from beyond the arc, tops in the Big 12, and are shooting 41 percent from that range. They are among the league leaders in assists and shooting percentage, numbers that help to offset the fact that Kansas ranks ninth out of 10 teams in the league in rebounding.

“We’re going to be scrappy, tough. We got to do a way better job of rebounding, obviously,” Graham said. “But yeah, basically we’ve just got to get way tougher, like I’ve been saying.”

That toughness could get a boost now that Silvio De Souza, a five-star prospect from Florida’s IMG Academy, has been cleared to play. He graduated in December and promptly joined the Jayhawks, and Self is hopeful the big man will be up to speed by the time February rolls around.

It could get another boost if Billy Preston, another five-star prospect, is ever cleared. The school and NCAA have been looking into the ownership of a car he was driving on campus last fall.

In the meantime, the Jayhawks head into their game against the Bears on Saturday riding a win streak, winning high-scoring affairs thanks to 3-pointers and an offensive flair.

“We don’t have the same team we’ve had in the past,” Self said, “and we have to understand that.”

TCU PG Jaylen Fisher to miss rest of season following knee surgery

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FORT WORTH, Texas — TCU point guard Jaylen Fisher had surgery Thursday to repair a meniscus tear in his right knee and will miss the rest of the season for the No. 24 Horned Frogs.

Fisher got hurt Tuesday, the second time in less than six months he injured a knee in practice. He had surgery after a meniscus tear in his left knee in early August.

The sophomore guard missed the team’s trip to Australia after the previous surgery, but was ready for the regular season. He averaged 12.1 points and was fifth in the Big 12 with 5.4 assists while playing the first 17 games. He had a career-high 22 points in an overtime loss Saturday at No. 4 Oklahoma, and he made 11 of 20 shots from 3-point range his last four games.

Fisher will need three to four months of recovery.

“I feel bad for him. We all feel bad for him,” coach Jamie Dixon said.

Even with his knee locked in a bent position and having to use crutches, Fisher attended TCU’s 96-73 home win over Iowa State on Wednesday night. He sat in a chair near the TCU bench.

Bracketology: Searching for No. 1 seeds

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That search for No. 1 seeds?  It may take a while.  We have some very good basketball teams.  But, at least to this point, we’re absent that handful of elite teams we’ve seen in recent years.  So if you’re writing teams on seed lines – including the top line – you might want to use a pencil.

Kansas is squarely back in the race after beating West Virginia in Morgantown.  And keep eye on North Carolina, too.  The Tar Heels are quietly putting together the type of profile that Selection Committee members traditionally like.  They currently own the No. 1 overall SOS (strength of schedule) in the nation, and have six wins over “tourney” teams in today’s bracket update.

Here’s the latest:

UPDATED: January 19, 2018

FIRST FOUR PAIRINGS – Dayton (First Round)

  • LSU vs. SMU | Midwest Region
  • Texas AM vs. UCLA West Region
  • ROBERT MORRIS vs. NC A&T | East Region
  • FLA GULF COAST vs. JACKSON ST | Midwest Region

BRACKET PROJECTION

EAST Boston                           MIDWEST – Omaha     
Pittsburgh Detroit
1) VILLANOVA 1) PURDUE
16) NC A&T / ROB MORRIS 16) FL GULF CST / JACKSON ST
8) Louisville 8) Miami-FL
9) Georgia 9) Providence
San Diego Boise
5) RHODE ISLAND 5) Arizona State
12) SOUTH DAKOTA ST 12) NEW MEXICO ST
4) Ohio State 4) CINCINNATI
13) BUFFALO 13) LOUISIANA
Dallas Nashville
6) Tennessee 6) TCU
11) Notre Dame 11) LSU / SMU
3) Texas Tech 3) Clemson
14) VERMONT 14) WILLIAM & MARY
Nashville Wichita
7) Michigan 7) Florida
10) Missouri 10) Butler
2) North Carolina 2) KANSAS
15) IONA 15) MONTANA
WEST – Los Angeles SOUTH – Atlanta
Charlotte Charlotte
1) Duke 1) VIRGINIA
16) PENNSYLVANIA 16) BUCKNELL
8) Texas 8) SAINT MARY’S
9) Arkansas 9) Marquette
Boise Dallas
5) Seton Hall 5) Michigan State
12) Texas AM / UCLA 12) MISSOURI STATE
4) Wichita State 4) AUBURN
13) BELMONT 13) E. TENNESSEE ST
San Diego Detroit
6) Creighton 6) Gonzaga
11) WESTERN KENTUCKY 11) NC State
3) ARIZONA 3) Xavier
14) S.F. AUSTIN 14) WRIGHT STATE
Wichita Pittsburgh
7) NEVADA 7) Kentucky
10) Alabama 10) Florida State
2) Oklahoma 2) West Virginia
15) CS-FULLERTON 15) RADFORD

NOTES on the BRACKET: Villanova is the No. 1 overall seed – followed by Purdue, Virginia, and Duke

Last Four Byes (at large): Florida State, Missouri, NC State, Notre Dame

Last Four IN (at large): LSU, Texas AM, SMU, UCLA

First Four OUT (at large): Washington, Houston, Baylor, Boise State

Next four teams OUT (at large): Syracuse, Maryland, USC, St. Bonaventure

Breakdown by Conference …

ACC (9): VIRGINIA, Duke, North Carolina, Clemson, Louisville, Florida State, Miami-FL, Notre Dame, NC State

SEC (9): AUBURN, Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri, LSU, Texas AM

Big East (7): VILLANOVA, Xavier, Seton Hall, Creighton, Marquette, Providence, Butler

BIG 12 (6): KANSAS, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas Tech, TCU, Texas

Big 10 (4): PURDUE, Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan

Pac 12 (3): ARIZONA, Arizona State, UCLA

American (3): CINCINNATI, Wichita State, SMU

West Coast (2): SAINT MARY’S, Gonzaga

Atlantic 10 (1): RHODE ISLAND

Mountain West (1): NEVADA

ONE BID LEAGUES: Missouri State (MVC), Iona (MAAC), Western Kentucky (C-USA), Louisiana (SBELT), Penn (IVY), Montana (BSKY), Wright State (HORIZON), S.F. Austin (SLND), East Tennessee State (STHN), UC-Fullerton (BWEST), Buffalo (MAC), Florida Gulf Coast (ASUN), Belmont (OVC), William & Mary (CAA), Radford (BSO), North Carolina A&T (MEAC), South Dakota State (SUM), New Mexico State (WAC), Vermont (AEAST), Bucknell (PAT), Robert Morris (NEC), Jackson State (SWAC)

New coach, healthy star push Buckeyes to unexpected heights

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio State’s elimination from the Big Ten tournament by lowly Rutgers last March showed the depths to which Buckeyes basketball had fallen in a just few short seasons.

First-year coach Chris Holtmann showed his players video cuts of that debacle before Sunday’s game, the first against the Scarlet Knights since the tournament. Ohio State then went out and routed Rutgers 68-46 .

On Monday the Buckeyes cracked the AP Top 25 poll for the first time in nearly three years. On Wednesday night they beat Northwestern to improve to 7-0 in the Big Ten — matching the number of conference wins they had all of last season.

Ohio State, 16-4 overall, is tied for first place in the conference with No. 3 Purdue and has forced its way into the NCAA Tournament conversation. Holtmann is the first coach in 95 years to win his first seven Big Ten games.

Who would have thought?

The Buckeyes missed the tournament for the second straight season last year. The loss of three of the top four scorers, transfers and a thin recruiting class led to a gloomy forecast for 2017-18. Thad Matta , who oversaw the rebuilding of Ohio State basketball in his 13 seasons, was fired and Holtmann, who had success at Butler, was brought in.

Holtmann managed to pull some pieces together but Ohio State lacked depth, especially at point guard. The coach did his best in the preseason to keep expectations low for what looked like another lost season.

He’s still trying to temper expectations, but the Buckeyes haven’t yet taken the lumps that he or anybody else were sure would come.

“Any coach that, through a third of the season, went undefeated would have to say they’re surprised,” he said. “I just think fortunately our team in general has played well and our really good players have led the way with that, both at home and on the road.”

None of those players has been better than Keita Bates-Diop , who missed all of the Big Ten schedule last season with a left leg injury that required insertion of a steel rod in his shin. He didn’t play again after Jan. 5 and not much went right for the Buckeyes after that.

Averaging 19.8 points per game, the 6-foot-7 forward has earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors for the past two weeks in a row.

Jae’Sean Tate, last year’s leading scorer, again is a major contributor. Point guard C.J. Jackson is second on the team in scoring, averaging 13.3 points per game. Freshman Kaleb Wesson, 6-foot-9 and 270 pounds, is providing needed bulk inside while averaging 11.2 points per game. His brother Andre, a sophomore, missed all of the summer and the first few weeks of fall practice with an illness but is contributing again.

Center Micah Potter, slowed by ankle injury this season, stepped up with a season-high 13 points on Wednesday as Northwestern applied pressure on Bates-Diop and Tate.

And Andrew Dakich, a graduate transfer who was a bit player for three years at Michigan, has been a bulldog at guard. His career high 11 points against Maryland Jan. 11 included three 3-pointers at the end of the first half that helped propel the Buckeyes to a 91-69 blowout. He is 12 of 18 for the season from 3-point range.

Holtmann, with an emphasis on defense and proper response to adversity, continues to publicly promote the theme that his team can’t possibly keep scoring at this pace and having this kind of success.

Don’t tell his players, though.

“I think it’s been all about approach,” Tate said. “Our approach every day in practice, our approach pregame. We always say we were picked (to be) one of the last teams in the Big Ten. We’re going to continue to play with that chip on our shoulder.”