By MITCH STACY, AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — All indications were that this would be another forgettable year for Ohio State basketball.
Coming off two disappointing seasons, the Buckeyes had the same core of players but a new coach in Chris Holtmann , who did his best in the preseason to tamp down expectations.
But behind a healthy Keita Bates-Diop , reliable fellow senior Jae’Sean Tate and a cast of role players, Ohio State’s “rebuilding” year became a season to remember.
Bates-Diop , who missed most of last season with a stress fracture of his left shin, averaged nearly 20 points per game and was chosen Big Ten Player of the Year. Holtmann, who came from Butler to replace the fired Thad Matta last summer, snagged conference Coach of the Year honors.
Ohio State opened its conference schedule 10-0 and cruised to 25-9 overall, far better than most people expected when Holtmann came aboard last summer.
“We just kept growing together,” Holtmann said. “I’ve been proud of a lot of teams, but this one is up there.”
The Buckeyes beat South Dakota State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, but their run ended with a second-round loss to Gonzaga on Saturday night.
“I couldn’t be more proud with our coaches and players the way we fought,” guard Kam Williams said. “We’re just extremely proud.”
In addition to Bates-Diop, the Buckeyes got leadership from Tate, who averaged 12.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, and Andrew Dakich, a graduate transfer point guard who had played three years at Michigan. Dakich, expected to be minor role player off the bench, was a key piece of the puzzle and distinguished himself as a ball distributor.
True freshman Kaleb Wesson was the sorely needed muscle in the middle, finishing with 10.2 points per game. C.J. Jackson, another senior, was a stalwart at point guard, averaging 12.4 points and four assists.
The Buckeyes started getting national attention after they knocked off No. 1 Michigan State at home on Jan. 7, then went to Purdue and beat the No. 3 Boilermakers a month later.
“This group really turned a corner at some point,” Holtmann said.
BUMPS IN THE ROAD
Ohio State got as high as No. 8 in the AP Top 25 but couldn’t solve unranked Penn State , which kept the Buckeyes from winning the Big Ten regular season, then bounced them from the conference tournament. Penn State was the only team to beat Ohio State twice, let alone three times.
Ohio State’s expected rebuilding year could come next season.
Seniors Tate, Jackson, Dakich and Williams move on, and Bates-Diop, a redshirt junior who already has graduated from Ohio State, will almost certainly leave for the NBA. The five of them accounted for around 55 points per game and the core of the team’s leadership. Williams was the most reliable 3-point threat.
Bates-Diop said Saturday night that he hadn’t made a decision yet. But he has little incentive to stay around another year.
It’s not clear how Holtmann will keep up the standards.
Kaleb Wesson will be a key, along with his brother, rising junior Andre, who has played mostly off the bench the past two seasons. Micah Potter, the 6-9 rising junior who was expected to be better this season, will be looked to for leadership.
Rising sophomore guard Musa Jallow and forward Kyle Young, both Holtmann recruits, will have to step into key roles.
Incoming freshmen include shooting guard Luther Muhamad and power forward Jaedon LeDee — both ranked as one of the nation’s top 100 prospects — along with forward Justin Ahrens and point guard Duane Washington.
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