Penn State has the chance to sweep the top team in the Big Ten standings when it hosts Ohio State on Thursday night. Since the Nittany Lions pulled off a dramatic, last-second victory in Columbus on January 25, the Buckeyes have won four straight, including a road upset of their own against Purdue last Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Penn State has boosted its NCAA Tournament resume with victories over Rutgers, Iowa, Maryland, and Illinois. The hype surrounding Pat Chambers’s team would really be off the rails if it had held onto a second-half lead at Michigan State two weeks ago, but the Lions still have plenty of chances left to make a statement in the regular season. Including this game, the final four tilts on the schedule are all against potential NCAA Tournament teams.
Scouting the opposition
There’s no question that Keita Bates-Diop has been the biggest factor in Ohio State’s dramatic turnaround this season. The junior forward’s rise to stardom has transformed the Buckeyes into one of the top teams in the country, and his impact was never more apparent than in the team’s lone Big Ten loss against Penn State. Bates-Diop scored 25 points that night and tied the game with mere seconds remaining thanks to his much-improved three-point jumper. His ability to score from anywhere, grab rebounds, and block shots on the other end makes him a top contender for Big Ten Player of the Year.
Of course, it takes more than one good player to go 13-1 in the Big Ten, so don’t forget about what Jae’Sean Tate does for Ohio State. The senior forward is like a more efficient version of Josh Reaves, as he does a little bit of everything for the Buckeyes. Not only does he grab six rebounds and hand out three assists per game, but Tate is shooting 55 percent from the field, so here’s rarely a burden even when he’s not blowing up the box score. When you add in the scoring and rebounding that Kaleb Wesson gives Ohio State in the post, as well as the huge leap that C.J. Jackson has taken as a point guard this season, you get a team that is very well balanced despite the star power up front.
Perhaps the biggest factor in Penn State’s upset of the Buckeyes was three-point shooting. The Lions went 11-for-14 from beyond the arc in Columbus, and that’s going to be hard to replicate, even in the friendly confines of the Bryce Jordan Center. The good news is that Ohio State isn’t particularly good at taking away the three-point shot, allowing opponents to hit on 34 percent of them in conference play. However, they do excel at eliminating second chances thanks to Bates-Diop’s outstanding defensive rebounding rate.
What to watch for
Will the Bryce Jordan Center be rocking? We’ve seen in the past how the Penn State fan base can step up when the basketball team shows some life. Well, the team is playing better than it has in years, and we haven’t yet seen an attendance bump that isn’t THON-related. Hopefully this is the game in which we see the community rally around the team.
Can Tony Carr be that good again? Although he got off to a slow start in Big Ten play, we’ve seen a better Carr lately. He’s gotten better this season at knowing when to call his own number and when to defer to Lamar Stevens or other players. The best example of this was in the last Ohio State game, when Carr need just 14 shots to score 28 points. It’s going to be tough to replicate that performance, but he’s going to need to come close for Penn State to complete the sweep.
Which bench player will step up? Penn State doesn’t have a lot of offensive production coming off the bench these days, but usually someone steps up in each game to give the team a little boost. Back in Columbus, that guy was Deivis Zemgulis, who scored five straight points at one point to help the Lions maintain their second-half lead. More recently, Nazeer Bostick has been a factor with seven points against Illinois.
Penn State has home court and momentum on its side, but Ohio State has to be beaming with confidence after its road victory at Purdue. This should be another close game between the two border rivals, but I expect the Buckeyes to come away with the win this time thanks to their more consistent offense. Ohio State 79, Penn State 75.