Yes, Penn State fans, it's really happening.
Not only does Sunday of championship week dawn with Penn State in good position to appear in its first NCAA Tournament in a decade, it brings with it a chance for the Nittany Lions to, well, win a championship as they face Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament title game at 3:30 P.M. on CBS.
In this program's darkest hours, be they this season or at any point in the last 10 and even more, all fans have ever asked for from it are days like today and the Lions have delivered. It's March, and Penn State is playing truly meaningful basketball. Perhaps the program isn't a powerhouse. It probably never will be. For once, though, it's giving some of the best fans in the nation a chance to truly participate in the most exciting month of college sports.
Sure, there may be disappointing and perhaps even disastrous moments in the hours to come. There are no promises of where Penn State will stand tomorrow if it loses this basketball game. Remember how you felt, though, when Penn State was 3-15 in the Big Ten a year ago, when it lost to Maine by 10 points on its home floor in December and when it appeared hopelessly out of contention following a defeat at the hands of Michigan on Super Bowl Sunday, and you'll have a true appreciation of what this day means.
The last three months have been one heck of a ride with this team and its never-say-die attitude. They've been what this sport is all about. Today, win or lose, should be a celebration of that.
Now let's go get some t-shirts and a nice shiny trophy.
When Penn State Has The Ball
- Penn State has done a nice job taking care of the basketball this conference season, but not against Ohio State. The Lions turned the ball over 14 times against the Buckeyes back in January and 13 times last week at the Bryce Jordan Center on Senior Night. Saturday against Michigan State, Penn State turned the ball over just six times and was able to keep the game it its pace as a result. If the team can play smart basketball again and not give the Bucks extra possessions, it should keep the score close.
- Believe it or not, Penn State has shot the ball better against Ohio State than just about any other opponent in the conference, averaging better than 50% from the field. If the Lions keep that going, its hard not to see them in it right down to the end.
- We have yet to see Jeff Brooks go off in this tournament and play like the dangerous No. 2 option he's been all season. Maybe today is his day? If it is, the Lions will be in business.
When Ohio State Has The Basketball
- This should go without saying, but Jon Diebler can't hit 10 3-pointers again if Penn State expects to stay in the game. The Lions' zone rotations were excellent against Michigan State and Wisconsin and they limited those teams to a combined 10-44 of 22% from the arc. If they repeat even close to that success guarding the perimeter in the title game, things should be much more competitive than they were back in State College last week where Ohio State prevailed 82-61.
William Buford is averaging a quiet 17 points per game against Penn State this season. Jared Sullinger's late-game heroics were the offensive story for the Buckeyes the first time around in Columbus and Diebler's air raid got all the press in the March 1 blowout, but Buford might have been the most valuable offensive contributor for Ohio State in both games. The Lion defenders have to keep better tabs on him this time.
- Ohio State dominated the boards 31-18 overall and 10-5 on the offensive glass last time. Should the Bucks rebound that well again, its curtains for Penn State's title hopes. Period.
Penn State's senior class might well be heading to the NCAA Tournament by day's end, win or lose, but it has never beaten Ohio State. You can bet that's something Talor Battle an Co. would like to check off their college career bucket list in their final conference game. It's not going to be easy by any means. The Buckeyes have an extra day of rest and a deeper bench to throw at a paper thin Penn State lineup playing its fourth game in four days, but it's hard to beat a team three times in one season. With two games between these teams already in the books, Ohio State will have no secrets against Penn State. The question is whether the Lions can make the most of what they know is coming.