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Penn State at Ohio State Preview: Big Noon Saturday

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Conference play begins, and this should be the best game of the weekend.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Nittany Lions blew past Wake Forest on Wednesday behind stout defense and a dynamic transition game. The final score of 76-54 left no doubt who the better team was, and Penn State won yet another game in dominant fashion giving them five wins of 20+ points in eight games this year. Now they’re presented with their most difficult opponent thus far, the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Fresh off a thumping of No. 7 UNC in Chapel Hill, the Buckeyes are playing at the highest level of any team in the country right now. Their efficiency at both ends is captured in their KenPom rank, and they could easily see their AP poll rank rise to No. 2 if they remain unbeaten through the weekend. Penn State has a real chance to turn heads and enter the Big Ten championship race as a legitimate contender with a win in Columbus, but they’ll have to earn it.

Scouting the opposition

Not unlike their gridiron counterparts, the Buckeyes’ physical defense presents an issue for every team in the country, including, as we saw on Wednesday, UNC and star freshman Cole Anthony. The Tar Heels, ranked 17th in offensive efficiency by KenPom, managed only 59 points in their loss to the Buckeyes. That’s 15 points fewer than their previous worst performance, in which they lost to Michigan 74-49. Penn State will need their shooters to be on, and they will need to counter Ohio State’s defense with a strong performance of their own.

Ohio State lost only one starter from last year’s NCAA-tournament team, point guard C.J. Jackson, but they have a capable and experienced replacement in C.J. Walker, a transfer from Florida State. Walker’s poise and control of the offense will be tested against Jamari “The Ferrari” Wheeler.

As I mentioned above, Kaleb Wesson is having a year. He leads the team in scoring (12.4), rebounds (9.2), and blocks (1.2) per game. In the past few years he and Mike Watkins have essentially neutralized each other, with neither player dominating and both putting up box scores near their season-long averages. It should be an excellent battle in the paint, and a chance for Watkins to make a statement with the entire conference watching. One area of note: Wesson is shooting 39% from 3-pt range this year, having hit 9 3-pointers at this point in the season. Don’t be surprised if he tries to draw Watkins out to the perimeter.

In addition to Wesson, guards Duane Washington Jr. and D.J. Carton are averaging double-digit scoring this year. But it’s by no means a three-headed attack for Chris Holtmann’s squad. Similar to Penn State there are 8 players capable of getting hot and changing the tide of a game, both inside and out.

Washington is currently shooting a ridiculous 18-35 from 3-pt range this year, and there isn’t a single guard on the team shooting under 34% from deep. If that’s not enough, Carton, EJ Liddell and Kyle Young (all players receiving significant minutes) are shooting above 60% from the field. Did I mention they play outstanding defense as well?

This will be a tough test for the Nittany Lions. Ohio State is playing as good as any team in the country right now, and they have enough recent experience with Penn State not to take them lightly. Still, there’s reason to believe the road team has a shot at pulling the upset.

What to watch for

Big Mike - The past three games have been as good as any that the senior center has put forth in his career, especially on the defensive end. While he’s had isolated games with better stats, the consistency from Watkins of late is encouraging and shows how big of a threat he can be to opposing teams’ game plans. In order to win, Penn State will need another strong performance unhampered by foul trouble. Mike has been excellent at avoiding foul-induced bench minutes so far this year, but he’ll be tested against Kaleb Wesson who’s been equally impressive in his senior year.

Three-point shooting - In Penn State’s lone loss of the year they shot 26% from three, while Ole Miss shot 44%. They bounced back above 30% against Syracuse before a miserable 5-28 (18%) performance against Wake Forest. They don’t necessarily need to shoot lights out, but they do need to stay within a few percentage points of an Ohio State team currently making 40% of shots from downtown.

Transition Points - More than three-pointers, I think Penn State’s chances in this one hinge on their ability to create opportunities off missed shots and turnovers and score in transition. As we’ve seen other teams like Yale find success against Penn State’s excellent half-court defense, the easiest way to break-down elite defenses is to not allow them the time to set up. Active hands on defense and effective finishes in transition will give them a decent shot at the win.

Prediction

Ever since Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins arrived on campus, this series has been very competitive, with each team winning 2 of 4 match-ups in the regular season (PSU beat OSU on a buzzer-beater in the BTT in 2018 to complete the 3-game sweep). Ohio State narrowly avoided defeat at home last year, outlasting Penn State 74-70; while the Lions took both games in 2018. The ending of their win in Columbus in 2018 was especially memorable.

I expect this game to come down to the wire as well. It should be a grind-it-out kind of game with both teams capable of playing shut-down defense for extended periods of time. Penn State will need to score in transition, and contain Ohio State’s shooters similar to what they did against Wake Forest (albeit against a more talented squad). Ultimately, on the road the Nittany Lions FT shooting catches up with them and they drop a close one. Ohio State 73, Penn State 67