In the latest episode of As the Big Ten Turns, Ohio State’s chances at receiving a first-round bye in the conference tournament became much more likely. Tuesday night featured yet another upset, as Minnesota defeated Iowa, dropping the Hawkeyes to fifth place and lifting the Buckeyes to fourth.
The final 10-day sprint to the finish is sure to include more twists and turns. Already, Michigan, the conference leader, needed a second-half rally and overtime miracle to win at Purdue Wednesday night.
|Penn State (13-14, 4-10)||Bryce Jordan Center||7:00 p.m.||ESPN 2 (WatchESPN)|
If anyone knows what’s going to happen next, let the rest of the Midwest in on the secret.
“I’ve never seen it like this. So I’m saying, ‘Who knows?’” said Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan, now in his 13th season in Madison and the dean of the Big Ten.
This season has featured Penn State winning at Ohio State, Nebraska winning at Michigan State and Indiana losing at home to Penn State and Northwestern.
And that’s not even the half of it.
The conference has been better; last season featured four elite teams. But from top to bottom, the gap continues to close. Road teams are winning at a rate not seen in decades and anyone really can win on any night.
Said Ryan: “The talent level and abilities of the teams one through 12 contribute to road teams winning more.”
If Penn State is to upset Ohio State for the second time this season, it must make shots, something the Nittany Lions have found problematic. When they defeated the Buckeyes in January, they shot nearly 50 percent from the field and made 9 of 25 three-point attempts.
But that was a one-night reprieve. Penn State is shooting under 40 percent in conference games and only averaging 66 points per game. Head coach Pat Chambers has his group more competitive, but a lack of scoring leaves the Nittany Lions with another buildup of losses.
“We have stretches that just kill us. Three-, four-minute stretches that we just don’t score,” Chambers said. “We’re competing at a high level and we’re playing some really good teams. But then you hit that three- to four-minute period of turnover, missed shot, turnover, missed shot and bam, you’re down 10.”
A similar sequence took place at Value City Arena when Ohio State took control in its first game against Penn State. On that night, there was no folding. A comeback was keyed by DJ Newbill’s ability to continually make shots.
“We know they play hard,” Ohio State junior Sam Thompson said. “They’re one of the hardest playing teams in the Big Ten. They’re one of the most physical teams in the Big Ten, and they obviously have confidence against us. They came in our building and beat us, so they think that they can beat us again. We really have to come out tomorrow with a high-level of focus and a high-level of intensity and get the win.”
While Penn State is still in the bottom of the Big Ten standings, there are signs that Chambers has the program trending upward. It’s already tied for the most conference wins in his three seasons in State College and the Nittany Lions’ 13 overall victories are the most since the 2010-11 campaign.
But moral victories aren’t what Chambers is interested in. He wants Penn State back in the postseason and on an arc where the NCAA Tournament is in the near future. Tim Miles’ restoration project at Nebraska and Ed DeChellis’ job are proof success can be had at even the most difficult schools to win at.
“I’m trying to win today,” Chambers said. “If we get too far ahead of ourselves, we start saying, ‘We have to win out, and we have to win the Big Ten Championship,’ and things like that. You put too much pressure on these kids to win that game. Do we have to play with a sense of urgency? No question. But you win today. Do that today so that you’re developing the habits for tomorrow.”
If tomorrow for Penn State includes another program-changing win, Chambers will have won today.
It’s a unanimous decision, but not a memorable moment. Jan. 29 can best be defined as rock bottom for the Ohio State basketball team. That was the night the Buckeyes suffered its worst loss of the season and arguably the worst in Thad Matta’s 10 seasons as head coach.
They blew a double-digit lead late in the second half to Penn State and then allowed a buzzer beater in overtime after a lapse on defense. A month later, it’s still on their minds.
“I think we’re a different team, we learned from that loss,” Thompson said. “We know that we didn't come out with the intensity and the toughness that we needed to come out to win. We allowed them to push us around a little bit on our home floor. We allowed them to get into a rhythm on both sides of the ball and really dictate the way that game was played.”
Penn State’s 71-70 victory was its first ever in Value City Arena and ended Ohio State’s 80-game home win streak against unranked opponents. But it wasn’t all that surprising considering how poorly the Buckeyes were playing. They lost five of six games after starting the season 15-0. A loss to the Nittany Lions fit right in line with the times.
Now, Ohio State’s won six of seven and playing some of its best basketball of the season. A win at Penn State would solidify the Buckeyes' standing among the top four in the Big Ten.
“It’s amazing when you go back and look at where we were at that point and the level we’ve been playing at,” head coach Thad Matta said. “We put ourselves in a very good position but just could not make the plays. Give Penn State the credit, they made some big-time shots and had some great offensive rebounds. We couldn’t finish it down the stretch. We had our chances and didn't get the job done.”
The current Ohio State team is a group that’s become cohesive on both ends of the floor, hitting open shots and creating offense with defense. It’s become an old hat for Matta’s teams to become hot at this time of the year. He regularly builds his teams performances for March.
“I think that we’re peaking at the right time,” Thompson said. “Offensively, we have a certain swagger about us. Defensively, I think we’re really turning it up to playing some of the best defensive basketball that we've played.”
It all started in the immediate aftermath of that Black Wednesday in January.
- Ohio State is 29-13 all-time versus Penn State.
- The Buckeyes rank second nationally in three-point field goal percentage defense (27 percent) and sixth in scoring defense (58.1 points per game).
- Aaron Craft is No. 4 in the nation with 73 steals.