BOISE, Idaho — A year ago at this time, Ohio State’s Jae’Sean Tate put all his options on the table.
A miserable season had just ended with the lowest moment of his career with the Buckeyes, and losing in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament to Rutgers wasn’t going to cut it for somebody as ruthlessly competitive as the senior forward.
Transfer? He’d be joining a lengthy list of former teammates.
Try his hand as a professional? Despite his versatile skills, Tate doesn’t exactly leap off the page as an NBA prospect.
Maybe give up the game and try football again? There were exploratory talks with coaches about putting his solid 6-foot-4, 230-pound body in some pads.
Then there was the path Tate chose to follow, which was the same one he had been on after signing with Ohio State out of nearby Pickerington.
Stick it out with the Buckeyes. Be a leader during a coaching transition. Find a way to leave a legacy.
“I was at the point after last year where I was like, this isn’t fun anymore,” Tate said. “We’re not loving the game, we’re not having fun, it’s like a job. This isn’t what I came here for.
“But the people in my corner were like, ‘There’s no way you can leave this ship. The way you played, the ability you have and the way you can lead people. It would be dumb to leave.’ This is my career, my legacy and that ultimately is why I stayed.”
The Buckeyes have certainly reaped the benefits, and Tate is clearly, undoubtedly enjoying himself on the hardwood again.
The smiles come easily for the veteran in the locker room at Taco Bell Arena, which is hosting far more important games than the relatively meaningless Big Ten Tournament pillow fight with the Scarlet Knights that ended Ohio State’s season last March. Tate is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since he was a freshman, a place he used to think he would be every year. And while he may not play the most prominent role on the team, there’s not much doubt among teammates that the resurgence in coach Chris Holtmann’s first year with the program wouldn’t have happened without Tate’s fingerprints on the wheel with him.
“He’s everything for us,” Ohio State star Keita Bates-Diop said. “He’s the heart and soul of this team. He’s the engine that makes us go. He’s like the Draymond [Green] of our team. Without him, we’re probably not as good as we’ve been.
“There’s a fire that’s in there that I’ve seen since Day One. He’s always had that, the competitive nature, the willingness to give it his all every time that he’s out there.”
If anything, the Buckeyes have had to work at times to rein in that passion with Tate. It’s also why it was so important for him to be patient when he was weighing his options on the heels of last year’s bitterly disappointing campaign that ultimately helped pave coach Thad Matta’s way out of town.
Dealing with a new coach was certainly part of the equation for Tate as he considered his next move, which did involve discussions about possibly walking on to the football team. But despite the potential he once showed at defensive end, he hadn’t put on a helmet since he was a junior in high school and claims now that he wouldn’t have enjoyed the toll the game takes on a body. Although the way Tate bullies around opponents battling for rebounds, certainly suggests an affinity for contact.
But Holtmann’s arrival combined with Tate’s drive to get Ohio State back among the national contenders turned out to be a perfect fit. No other option was necessary.
“You know, he’s just a special kid,” Holtmann said. “He plays with emotion, he cares, he really cares. He just cares at a really high level, and when you have a kid that cares, you can always work with that kid.
“You can’t work with kids that don’t care about winning or don’t take pride in wearing the jersey. He takes great pride in wearing the Buckeye jersey. He cares, he cares about his teammates, he cares about his school, he cares about his team.”
Tate couldn’t leave his teammates.
He never wanted to leave Ohio State.
And now he’s doing everything he can to keep that scarlet-and-gray jersey on as long as possible in the NCAA Tournament.
“I mean, I chose Ohio State because of the success it has had,” Tate said. “They had just been to the Final Four when I was a freshman, they had multiple draft picks, and you come to this school to dance in March. I didn’t expect to only be in this twice, but you have to take your blessings however you get them.
“I couldn’t ask for a better senior year than to end it in March. If you look at where we were and this team this year, the success we’ve had and the success we still could have, I’m riding high right now.”
It may have taken a low point to get there.
But Tate’s smile is back, and so are the Buckeyes.
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