Prior to this season, the expectations for the Ohio State basketball program probably were lower than they had been in decades.
The Buckeyes had lost three starters off a team that didn’t get into a postseason tournament a year ago. They had undergone a coaching change in June with long-time coach Thad Matta abruptly departing and Chris Holtmann being brought in from Butler to replace him.
Some experts were picking the Buckeyes to finish as low as 14th in the Big Ten. Almost no one had them higher than 10th.
But as it prepares for a 5 p.m. battle today with a struggling Iowa team at Value City Arena, Ohio State finds itself atop the Big Ten standings, fresh off a stunning victory over third-ranked Purdue on Wednesday night.
One of the few people who isn't very surprised about all of this is Iowa coach Fran McCaffery.
“Obviously, he’s a candidate for not only coach of the year in our league but maybe for national coach of the year,’’ McCaffery said of Holtmann. “But I think you have to remember this: Keita Bates-Diop didn’t play last year. Had he played, they wouldn’t have won 17 games; they probably would have won 24 games and it would have been a completely different situation over there.’’
Bates-Diop, a multi-talented 6-foot-7 junior, missed last season with a foot injury but has blossomed this season. He's a virtual lock to be the Big Ten player of the year.
He had 27 points and 13 rebounds in an earlier victory over Iowa and scored the winning basket in the final seconds against Purdue.
McCaffery admitted he’s not really sure there is any way to completely stop Bates-Diop because he does so many things well and can score in almost every way imaginable.
“You’ve just got to pay attention to him, you’ve got to limit him as much as you can, you’ve got to make him work as much as you can, just try not to let him get anything easy,’’ McCaffery said.
But the Buckeyes (21-5 overall, 12-1 Big Ten) obviously are not just winning because of one player. McCaffery described 6-4 senior Jae’Sean Tate as a “matchup nightmare’’ and said he thinks freshman Kaleb Wesson already is among the best centers in the country.
Senior guard Kam Williams, who has hurt the Hawkeyes in past matchups, currently is suspended for a violation of team rules, but the Buckeyes are getting contributions from unexpected sources.
Freshman Musa Jallow and sophomore Andre Wesson, both of whom average fewer than 3 points per game and shoot less than 30 percent from 3-point range, each hit three 3-pointers to help Ohio State rally from a 14-point deficit and hand Purdue its first loss in 2½ months.
McCaffery said he has known about Holtmann’s coaching ability for a long time. He recalled that his Gardner-Webb team came into Iowa City and opened a 23-point lead on the Hawkeyes a few years ago.
“I have tremendous respect for him,’’ McCaffery said. “He is a fabulous coach, one of the best coaches in our game. He did a great job at Gardner-Webb …
“What he has done is they play defense and they share the ball,’’ he added. “I think that’s a staple with his teams. They put winning above anybody’s personal agenda. That’s a great quality to have as a coach, and that’s why they’re winning.’’
McCaffery’s Hawkeyes (12-14, 3-10 Big Ten) are just looking to salvage some respect out of what has been a disheartening season. They nearly did that Tuesday in a 96-93 loss to No. 4 Michigan State.
Holtmann said in his news conference Friday that he think the Hawkeyes are "playing as well as anyone in the league right now.'' He recalled that Iowa outscored in his team in the second half of the Buckeyes' earlier 92-81 win and he feels they're playing much better now.
"We need to be ready ...'' he said. "I think they're much harder to play now. Let's face it, we're going to play a different team than the one we played in Iowa City.''