As the season winds down and with postseason play on the horizon, you always hope that your team is playing its best basketball going into tournament time.
Unfortunately for Keita Bates-Diop, that hasn't been the case.
Ohio State's redshirt junior and assumed frontrunner for the Big Ten Player of the Year has hit a wall, at least offensively, in his last four games.
Since dropping a career-high 35 in a 75-67 win over Illinois on Feb. 4, Bates-Diop has been held under 20 points every game since, including a season-low six points in a win over Rutgers on Tuesday. The performance against the Scarlet Knights took him out of the top spot in terms of scoring leaders in the Big Ten, as Penn State's Tony Carr (19.6 ppg) overtook Bates-Diop (19.0).
Bates-Diop's offensive struggles, at least to the casual basketball observer, appear to be due to fatigue, something Chris Holtmann said he first noticed early in a 74-62 loss to Michigan on Sunday.
"I think we noticed it, his first two free throws at Michigan. I haven't seen him shoot short all year like that," Holtmann said. "He has carried such a heavy load for us."
Bates-Diop scored 20 or more points in the first four conference games of the new year, including 32 in an upset win over then-No. 1-ranked Michigan State. He has hit the 20-point mark in 11 games this season, in which Ohio State holds an 8-3 record.
His production hasn't been particularly limited in other facets of his game, however, as Bates-Diop has pulled down five or more rebounds in all but one conference game this season, and continues to rank in the top-10 in the league in blocked shots.
“He has carried such a heavy load for us.”– Chris Holtmann on Keita Bates-Diop.
However, for Ohio State to be successful down the stretch, it is likely the Normal, Ill., native will need to find his offensive rhythm again. In order to do that, Holtmann said he and his staff have considered a lighter load for their star player in practice.
"He's a good athlete, but he's not an incredible athlete. I think as a coaching staff, we have met the last couple of days, because I am a little bit of a grinder when it comes to practice. I like our guys to be hitting in most practices," Holtmann said. "We don't go four hours a day, but we are trying to work so there is always that balance you're trying to find as a coach. We are looking for the right balance with him right now."
Despite his shot not falling as consistently as it did earlier in the season, Bates-Diop continues to take more shots than anyone else on Ohio State's roster. He shot just 3-of-11 against Rutgers on Tuesday and 5-of-17 against the Wolverines.
Holtmann said that because of what he brings to the table offensively, Bates-Diop will continue to get the green light to fire away, within the confines of the game of course.
"He does have more leeway. Coaching secret here: your best players will always have a little more leeway," Holtmann said Thursday with a smile. "You earn that right when you perform like he's performed, to have a little more load."
That being said, Holtmann said that even the frontrunner for conference player of the year has room for improvement, and added Bates-Diop is willing to put in the effort to get back on the right track with the postseason inching closer.
"He has probably forced some things, and he has to be aware of that. I think that is something we have tried to talk to him in film about," Holtmann said. "Understanding when traps are coming, when double-teams are coming, when a secondary defender is coming on his dribble. He will get better with that, and he has gotten better with it. It's something we have to continue to try and coach him better on. He is so coachable that he gets it."