When Virginia Tech took down then-No. 1 Duke on Saturday night in Blacksburg, ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said beating the nation's top team should be the equivilent to beating five other ranked teams in a given squad's NCAA Tournament resume.
With Ohio State unveiled as the country's new No. 1 on Monday, Penn State now has a chance to get that kind of a statement win when the Nittany Lions host the Buckeyes at 9 tonight on the Big Ten Network.
Among Penn State's final two opponents, Ohio State is looking more and more like the Lions' last chance to pick up a solid win. Minnesota, despite a solid RPI of 61, has turned into what ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb referred to Saturday night as a "burning dumpster fire" as a loser of seven of its last eight. Given that, if the Lions still hope to squeak their way into the NCAA Tournament, they'd be well served to make the most of their opportunity against the Buckeyes tonight.
On top of all its tournament implications, though, it's important to remember that this will be Senior Night at the Bryce Jordan Center. Talor Battle, Jeff Brooks, David Jackson, Andrew Jones and Steve Kirkpatrick will all be playing their final regular season games in Happy Valley, capping off what might be the most watched careers of any players in Penn State basketball history thanks to the advent of the Big Ten Network.
Emotions should be running pretty high in the building.
Penn State turned in one of its best performances of the season against Ohio State in Columbus. Though they trailed much of the game, the Lions managed to tie the game as late as 44 seconds remaining in the game. It was then that Ohio State's stellar freshman Jared Sullinger took over, getting a basket and-one before helping the Bucks force a stop in Penn State's final possession. Penn State was close, though, which is something not many teams can say about their efforts against the new No. 1 this season.
When Ohio State Has The Ball
- Penn State held Sullinger, a 17.4 point and 9.8 rebound per game contributor, to 13 points and six rebounds before the freshman took over in the final minutes in Columbus. This time around, the Lions need to contain him early again, then finish the job and prevent him from making those player-of-the-year type plays down the stretch.
- Perhaps the biggest key to Penn State's near upset in January was its 25-15 rebounding edge over Ohio State. The Buckeyes have potent scorers and they're very dangerous, but they're much more ordinary when their misses can be cleared on the defensive end. Only Sullinger had more than three rebounds in the first matchup. If Penn State can do that solid a job on the glass again, this time at home, it'll do wonders for its chances.
- The x-factor of the first game was Buckeye guard Aaron Craft. The 7.1 point per game scorer came of the bench for Thad Matta to score 19 points on 4-6 from the 3-point line. Limiting him, and any other damage Ohio State's reserves might look to inflict should be a goal for Penn State this time around.
When Penn State Has The Ball
- It's hard to shoot much better than the 55.6% number the Lions posted in Columbus, but if Penn State can manage close to that this time, it'll have more than a fair shot at home. Talor Battle's performance will be key in that department. The Lions' four starters beyond Talor Battle shot 19-25 in the first game. Talor Battle was 5-17 from the field. If he can improve, that's good news for Penn State.
- Penn State didn't take very good care of the ball in the first matchup, turning it over 14 times. The Lions have done a better job of that lately, however, racking up double-digit turnovers only once in the last six games. Keep that momentum going, and it'll be another feather in Penn State's upset cap.
- Senior Steve Kirkpatrick will start because it's senior night. Don't expect him to last long, but his start will be symbolic of the bench's importance in the game from the tip. Expecting Penn State's three forwards to stay out of foul trouble is probably a little ambitious considering how tightly many of Penn State's big games have been called this season.The bench needs to be able to give the starters a good blow if they need one and bail them out if the situation dictates.
Though Penn State is certainly capable of beating Ohio State, there's a chance some are reading a little too much into the game in Columbus. It's March now. Jeff Brooks is injured, and trust me, by this point in the season, he's not the only Lion that's banged up. Penn State's five key starters have a lot more miles on them now than they did in January, so there's a good chance this team might just not have the gas to keep up with the deeper, not to mention more skilled Buckeyes. Penn State has shown a lack of energy in road games at Illinois, Michigan State and Wisconsin in the last month, teams slightly below Ohio State talent-wise. To expect Penn State to hang with an Ohio State team after it scrambled just to keep things in single digits in those games might be a bit ambitious, even on their own floor. Anything can happen, of course, but Ohio State is No. 1 and Penn State is on the bad side of the bubble for a reason. The odds are not in the Lions' favor.
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