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Weekend lookahead: Buckeyes have chance to take over the Big Ten

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Bates-Diop's versatility makes him a Wooden Watch candidate (0:59)

Dalen Cuff and Tom Crean are impressed with Keita Bates-Diop's road back from injury and break down his ability to score at three levels: at the rim, midrange and from beyond the arc. (0:59)

In the weeks before Ohio State tipped off its first season under Chris Holtmann, the head coach avoided assistant coach Ryan Pedon's office as much as he could.

Pedon, a Columbus, Ohio, native who spent two seasons on Holtmann's staff at Butler before joining him at Ohio State in June, had plastered one of the walls in his office with copies of preseason polls, predictions and quotes of what others were saying about the Buckeyes' prospects in 2017-18.

Most of the clippings read more like obituaries than season previews. Media that voted in the Big Ten preseason poll picked the Buckeyes to finish 11th in the 14-team league. Sports Illustrated also predicted Ohio State would finish 11th, the Sporting News pegged it 12th and the Big Ten Network had it 13th, ahead of only Rutgers.

"Every time I'd go in there, I'd kind of get depressed," Holtmann said. "So I stayed away from his office."

Boy, were the preseason polls wrong.

After the No. 14 Buckeyes ended No. 3 Purdue's 19-game winning streak with a 64-63 victory on the road Wednesday night, the teams are tied for first in the Big Ten standings at 12-1. Because Ohio State also defeated then-No. 1 Michigan State 80-64 at home on Jan. 7, the Buckeyes hold a tiebreaker over both teams, which play each other only once during the regular season.

The No. 4 Spartans, who are one game behind the Buckeyes and Boilermakers with five games to go in the regular season, host Purdue on Saturday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN).

The Buckeyes (21-5) host Iowa on Saturday, then play three of their final four games on the road -- at Penn State, No. 20 Michigan and Indiana.

"We've been a team that's been evolving from the get-go, really because this team was just formed in late June," Holtmann said. "We knew we could get better as the year went on, but we certainly didn't think we'd develop like this in our first year."

There were legitimate reasons for Ohio State's low expectations. Holtmann wasn't hired until June 9, five days after former coach Thad Matta was forced out after 13 seasons. After Matta guided the Buckeyes to the Final Four in 2007 and 2012 and five Big Ten regular-season titles, his program slipped at the end.

The Buckeyes went 17-15, 7-11 in the Big Ten last season and missed the NCAA tournament for the second straight season.

"I have a lot of respect for Thad, and he set the standard here," Holtmann said. "The last couple of years, Thad was kind of frustrated, and I think there was frustration all around."

Holtmann's first few weeks on the job weren't easy, either. Two high school prospects decommitted, freshman point guard Braxton Beverly transferred to NC State without playing in a game and forward Derek Funderburk was dismissed from the team for a violation of team rules.

Holtmann, who directed Butler to the NCAA tournament in each of his three seasons there, tried to develop chemistry with his new players quickly. Because he was hired so late, there wasn't a lot of time. He flew to Columbus on the university's private jet and secretly met with Ohio State's returning players three days before his hiring was announced. He invited the team to his home to watch the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Conor McGregor fight in June and organized other team outings as much as he could.

"He's really done a good job from day one of bringing us closer together," Ohio State junior Keita Bates-Diop said. "There were a lot of rifts and some adversity in terms of being a new coaching staff and players coming and going, but he really talked about being a family from the beginning."

It also hasn’t hurt that Bates-Diop has emerged as a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate, averaging 20.2 points and 9 rebounds. He played in only nine games last season because of a stress fracture in his left leg. Bates-Diop had 32 points in the victory against Michigan State, then 18 points and 11 rebounds against Purdue.

Holtmann said it's equally important that the rest of the Buckeyes have allowed Bates-Diop to emerge as an offensive force. He has attempted 127 more shots than any other Ohio State player.

"I think it speaks well of our other guys," Holtmann said. "He has been so dominant in so many ways, and for our other guys to allow him to do it says a lot about them."

Whether or not the Buckeyes hang on to win the Big Ten title, their first season under Holtmann has gone much better than most everyone expected.

Holtmann can even walk into Pedon's office a little more often. Pedon has added articles about Ohio State's unexpected success.

"It's a good reminder for all us," Holtmann said.

Others teams to watch this weekend:

Auburn at Georgia (3:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

The No. 8 Tigers are coming off their first home loss of the season, falling to Texas A&M 81-80 on Wednesday night, which probably knocked them out of contention for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

The Tigers (21-3, 9-2 SEC) shouldn't have much trouble getting back on track at Georgia (13-10, 4-7 SEC) on Saturday. The Bulldogs have dropped seven of their past nine, including an ugly 81-66 loss at Vanderbilt on Wednesday night.

Georgia's recent slide has put coach Mark Fox squarely on the hot seat with seven games to go. Fox, who has a 158-128 record in his ninth season at Georgia, has guided the Bulldogs to the NCAAs only twice, losing in the first round each time.

Georgia fans seem to be out of patience, and the fact that the Bulldogs are so difficult to watch is making matters worse. Despite having SEC Player of the Year candidate Yante Maten, who leads the league in scoring (19.3 points), Georgia is the only SEC team averaging fewer than 70 points per game (68.7). The Bulldogs rank next to last in the SEC in field goal percentage (42.7 percent) and 3-pointers made (136), and no other Georgia player is averaging at least 10 points per game.

Virginia Tech at Virginia (6:15 p.m. ET, ESPN)

With No. 1 Villanova losing 79-75 to St. John's on Wednesday night, the No. 2 Cavaliers can probably climb into the top spot for the first time since Dec. 21, 1982, with a home win against rival Virginia Tech on Saturday night.

Virginia (23-1, 12-0 ACC) had to rally from a 10-point deficit in the second half of an eventual 59-55 victory at Florida State on Wednesday night, holding the Seminoles without a field goal for the final nine minutes.

The Cavaliers won 78-52 at Virginia Tech on Jan. 3, their most lopsided victory in the series since a 48-point rout on Feb. 18, 1955. The Hokies have won four of their past five, including an 85-75 victory against NC State on Wednesday night; point guard Justin Robinson scored a career-high 32 against the Wolfpack.

Kentucky at Texas A&M (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN)

It's turning into a season of firsts for Kentucky, and not the kind the Big Blue Nation is used to having. The No. 24 Wildcats lost 69-60 at Missouri on Saturday, the Tigers' first victory in 11 games in a series that started in 1960. Then Kentucky lost 61-59 to No. 15 Tennessee at Rupp Arena on Tuesday, giving the Volunteers their first regular-season sweep in the series since 1998-99.

After a 12-2 start, Kentucky (17-7, 6-5 SEC) is 5-5 in its past 10 contests, falling three games behind Auburn in the SEC standings. The Wildcats play back-to-back road games at surging Texas A&M on Saturday (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) and at Auburn on Wednesday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN).

If Kentucky drops both, it will fall to 6-7 in SEC play, which would mark only the second time it has been below .500 in conference play in John Calipari's nine seasons. The other time? Kentucky lost its SEC opener at Georgia in 2010-11, before going on to win the SEC tournament and reached the Final Four.

Gonzaga at Saint Mary's (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

With Purdue falling to Ohio State on Wednesday night, No. 11 Saint Mary's (24-2, 13-0 WCC) now has the longest winning streak in Division I at 19 games, which is a school record. The Gaels haven't lost since falling 83-81 to Georgia in overtime at the Wooden Legacy on Nov. 26.

Saint Mary's can all but wrap up a West Coast Conference regular-season title with a second win against No. 12 Gonzaga (22-4, 12-1 WCC) on Saturday night. The Bulldogs have won six straight and 12 of 13, with their only loss during that stretch coming against Saint Mary's. The Gaels overcame a nine-point deficit in the second half of a 74-71 victory at Gonzaga on Jan. 18.

The Bulldogs must do a better job defending Saint Mary's center Jock Landale, who had 26 points and 12 rebounds in the first meeting.