Nearly halfway through Big Ten play, Keita Bates-Diop is the near-unanimous frontrunner for the conference player of the year award.
The junior is averaging 20.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in Big Ten play, shooting a red-hot 50.8 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range.
He has seven double-doubles on the season, has put up over 20 points eight times and had a three-game stretch where he tallied 85 points – the most of any Buckeye player over such a span since Michael Redd scored 86 in 1998.
Bates-Diop is a special talent, and is unquestionably the top player on the team and in the conference thus far, but he's not the player who's most vital to Ohio State's long-term success – that would be C.J. Jackson.
In his second season since transferring from Eastern Florida State, Jackson looks like a new player. He's averaging well over double the points from a year ago, improved his free-throw percentage from 67 percent to 82 percent, and has turned into a legit three-point threat, averaging 41 percent from behind the arc this season.
That's good news for the Buckeyes, because they need him. The departure of former starting point guard JaQuan Lyle this offseason and freshman Braxton Beverly's flip to NC State meant that Jackson would likely be team's only experienced ball handler entering the season.
Towards the end of the summer, Andrew Dakich announced his intent to transfer to Ohio State, but Jackson remained the only point guard on the roster with meaningful in-game experience and is still the team's primary option at the one position.
The Buckeyes have figured out a number of ways to spell Jackson, whether it's Dakich taking the reigns of the offense for a few minutes or Jae'Sean Tate taking the ball up the court on some possession, but through 21 games, it's clear how vital Jackson is to Ohio State's success.
Put simply, to have real success this season, the Buckeyes need Jackson on the court, and they need him to play well, because there aren't really any other long-term options.
So far this season, the team has really gone with Jackson. When he struggles, Ohio State struggles. So far this season, Jackson has three games with over six turnovers. Those performances have led to an ugly 10-point win against Kenpom No. 169-rated Radford and two second-half collapses against Butler and Clemson.
The same is not necessarily even true of Bates-Diop. When the team's top player has struggled so far this season – which really has not been often – the team is able find production elsewhere.
The past two games, Bates-Diop was not quite as productive as he's been all season, but the Buckeyes didn't miss a beat. Micah Potter had arguably the best game of his career against Northwestern, shooting a perfect 5-for-5 from the field for 15 points and Kaleb Wesson played his best game as a Buckeye against Minnesota, going 7-for-9 for 15 points and 8 rebounds.
This isn't to say Bates-Diop is not an important piece or even the team's top weapon, but Ohio State has proven they can at least cope when he has an off performance. The same is not true of Jackson.
With a short bench, a lack of ball handlers and a proven dependency on his performance, the Buckeyes need C.J. Jackson this year. And in large part so far, he's answered the call.