As the Buckeyes prepare for March Madness, its star player looks back on a year where his basketball career nearly ended before it could take root

From childhood, Keita Bates-Diop wanted nothing more than to play basketball.

As an 8-year-old living in Florida, the Ohio State redshirt junior would play pickup games at a nearby recreation center, mimicking high-scoring NBA players such as Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers and Tracy McGrady, who suited up nightly for the Orlando Magic just 45 minutes away.

So imagine Bates-Diop’s horror after his younger brother, Kai, then a 16-year-old high school sophomore, collapsed on the court in Illinois after suffering cardiac arrest during practice in February 2017, revealing a hereditary heart defect that put an abrupt end to his basketball career and very nearly cost him his life.

A few weeks later, Keita positioned himself on an examining table in a cramped doctor’s office in suburban Columbus, where physicians smeared ultrasound gel on his chest and scanned his heart, testing him for the same genetic heart defect.

“It was a 50-50 chance I had it at that point,” said Bates-Diop, 22. “It was one of the longest days of my life. … When they came back and said I was fine, I was like, ‘Thank God.’ It was something I couldn’t control. There was nothing I could do. My whole [basketball] career was up to chance.”

The scare capped a difficult stretch for the 6-foot-7 wingman, whose 2016-17 season was cut short by surgery to repair a stress fracture in his shin, which he tried to play through, managing to appear in nine games before calling it quits. With Bates-Diop out of commission, the Buckeyes finished 17-15, missing the postseason and setting the stage for the June firing of Head Coach Thad Matta.

Coming into the 2017-18 season, expectations were low both for the Buckeyes and Bates-Diop, who arrived in Columbus as the second-highest rated player in the Ohio State recruiting class behind D’Angelo Russell, the second overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft and current Brooklyn Nets point guard.

“I don’t blame anyone for having questions about this group,” said first-year Head Coach Chris Holtmann, whom the Buckeyes snagged from Butler University following Matta’s dismissal. “I think we all did, myself included. They probably had questions about me. They had questions about Keita.

“We had expectations that at the time seemed right. [In 2016-17 we finished in the] bottom part of the league. Can we climb to the middle part of the league? Can we somehow get to a post-season NIT berth?”

These questions have been answered during a remarkable season in which the 17th-ranked Buckeyes finished the regular season with a 24-8 record, second in the conference behind Michigan State, positioning itself for high seeding in the forthcoming NCAA tournament (most experts project Ohio State as a five seed following a surprise loss to Penn State in the Big Ten conference tournament on March 2).

Bates-Diop has experienced a similar growth spike this season, averaging 19.4 points and 8.8 rebounds per game (to go along with a steal and nearly two blocks and assists per game) on his way to winning the award for Big Ten Player of the Year, as voted on by league coaches and select media members, in addition to being named a first-team All-American.

Not bad for a guy who walked into a doctor’s office in February 2017 anticipating that he might have to hang up his size 16 sneakers once and for all.

“It put things in perspective,” said the soft-spoken Bates-Diop, who still talks to his brother on a weekly basis (Keita said Kai is doing well health-wise and plans on pursuing a degree in sports management). “There’s an appreciation at that point, like, ‘I’ll be out a few months [following leg surgery], but I’ll be back and I’ll be OK.’”

According to Bates-Diop, coming back from leg surgery was an arduous process both physically and mentally.

“Being comfortable jumping off of one foot took probably until the middle of summer, and my first open-court, up-and-down games were in early June,” said Bates-Diop, who relied heavily on biking during his rehab, since it helped him regain strength and flexibility without putting additional pressure on his leg. “Mentally, it took a few more weeks to get back, so maybe July. You know [you’re back mentally] when you get to playing again and stop thinking, ‘Am I going to hurt it? Is something going to pop out?’ Over time you get to playing again and you forget [the injury is] even there.”

During Bates-Diop’s downtime, he watched old game tape, studying both his own film and that of other players, paying attention to details such as footwork and in-game tendencies in an attempt to sharpen his mental approach to the game. He also continued to develop his body. Coming in as a freshman, Bates-Diop was the textbook definition of lanky, with pipe-cleaner limbs accentuated by his 7-foot-3 wingspan. Now, he’s filled out his frame with muscle that better allows him to withstand the rigors of playing in the low post, even sliding over to defend opposing centers on multiple occasions this season.

“He can guard five positions (point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center) and he can play multiple positions offensively,” Holtmann said. “And it’s why he’s going to have a long, successful pro career, because he does bring that versatility people are looking for.”

When it comes to talk of the NBA, however, Bates-Diop demurs, saying he hasn’t given it any thought and that he’s entirely focused on the upcoming NCAA tournament. Ohio State will learn its tourney seeding during Selection Sunday on March 11, and action tips off in Dayton on Tuesday, March 13, with the First Four play-in games. Opening round action for the final field of 64 teams — the official kick-off of March Madness — begins on Thursday, March 15. (For what it’s worth, NBA draft site nbadraft.net currently projects Bates-Diop as a high second-round pick.)

Each offseason, Bates-Diop has worked to add a new element to his repertoire — this past year, he focused on his mid-range game — helping him develop into a player who can score from anywhere on the court. He’s also grown as a leader both on and off the court, though that’s been a less natural progression for the admittedly reserved young man.

“If I talk, I want to have something to say. I’m not just going to talk to talk,” said Bates-Diop, who was born near Sacramento, California, and spent most of his childhood in Normal, Illinois, save for those two years in Florida. “People still feel like I’m not all the way there yet, but I’m more vocal than I was even last year.”

Bates-Diop has been further pulled from his shell by gregarious teammate Jae’Sean Tate (aka “JT”), who Keita described as “almost the yin to my yang.”

“That’s where JT comes in. We offset each other,” Bates-Diop said. “Whenever something needs to happen on the court, he can get us all riled up. Then there are other times I can calm us down. If he needs to, he can get on somebody, but then I can talk to them calmly about what to do next. We work off each other very well.”

“[Bates-Diop has] become a little more vocal, and I think he’s accepted responsibility for success of the team or the struggles of the team,” Holtmann said. “He’s been more assertive both on the floor and in his leadership.”

This assertiveness hasn’t necessarily carried over into his academic pursuits, though.

“I actively avoid the classes that say ‘presentation likely or often,’” Bates-Diop said, and laughed.

As a result of his 2017 health scare, he has taken classes more seriously — “Not that I didn’t before,” Bates-Diop added — knowing there will be a day that he can no longer play basketball, and that it might not be a decision left entirely up to his control.

“Thinking about mortality was one of the deeper thoughts [after Kai collapsed], but on the surface it was, ‘What about life after basketball?’ [Kai’s] life after basketball started that day, and if the ball stopped bouncing for him at 16, it’s going to stop for me at some point,” Bates-Diop said. “I started thinking about all those sayings everyone tells you when you grow up playing basketball, like, ‘You can’t put all your eggs in one basket.’ That starts to hit you, like, ‘Oh, this is definitely going to be a reality at some point. I don’t know when that’s going to be, but it will happen at some point.’”

But not today, thankfully. And with the rising Buckeyes making preparations for March Madness, Bates-Diop sounded as if he were just getting started.

“I still think we have the mentality that we’re the underdogs. That’s what got us here. We don’t want to see a ranking next to our name and be like, ‘We made it,’” he said. “We haven’t made it yet. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”