With a beatdown of middling Penn State Wednesday night, Ohio State has now won five of its last six games to look like the talented team it was billed as in the preseason.
After an uneven start in Big Ten play, the Buckeyes now find themselves in the thick of a logjam for second place in the conference.
They also appear to be playing with a confidence that either did not exist or wavered last month.
“We know the season’s coming down to an end,” said Sam Thompson, the senior forward who scored a career-high 22 points in a 77-55 rout of the Nittany Lions.
Indeed, Ohio State has six games left in the regular season before the postseason, where they hope to draw a favorable seed in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. It also hopes to have turned a corner as winter will soon give way to spring.
“We know it’s early February,” Thompson said. “We know it’s time for the players to play.”
“We know it’s early February. We know it’s time for the players to play.”
D’Angelo Russell, the star freshman who has captured the nation’s attention with his electrifying play, is the team’s greatest offensive weapon, averaging 19.4 points a game. He leads the team in rebounds (147) and is second in assists (137) behind only senior point guard Shannon Scott.
Largely because of Russell, the Buckeyes have been to mitigate void left by Marc Loving, who has been suspended for the last three games.
But over the last three weeks — which includes resume-worthy wins against ranked competition Indiana and Maryland — Russell has had a Lazy Susan of sidekicks at his disposal. It makes his life “easier,” Russell said. “A lot easier.”
“I mean, teams can’t really key on me if other guys are stepping up,” he said.
The rotating cast of helpers began with Loving, the team’s best 3-point shooter.
Next it was freshman forward Jae’Sean Tate, who was inserted into the starting lineup against Northwestern last month to provide a much-needed spark of energy.
Last night, it was Thompson, who buoyed the Buckeyes on offense on a night where Russell struggled to find his footing shooting the ball (but still poured in 17 points).
“We’ve got a certain way about us on offense, Thompson said. “Take away that Purdue game and I think we’ve really executed the way that we’ve wanted to offensively.
Thompson also led a defensive charge to stop Penn State’s best player, D.J. Newbill. The plan, as Thompson said, was to “make sure when he had the ball, (Newbill) saw five Ohio State defenders.”
Because of this, the Nittany Lions — whose sweep of the Buckeyes last year marked a nadir — were rendered toothless.
And days after pounding Rutgers in New Jersey, Ohio State flexed its muscles against an inferior league opponent.
“Hopefully we’re doing something right in terms of that,” said coach Thad Matta, who added an upcoming game against Michigan State Saturday afternoon in East Lansing will challenge the rising Buckeyes. There is still much work to be done, they say.
“Like I said — like I’ve been saying — we have to keep building on it,” Thompson said. “Every guy has to keep doing what they’re doing and we’ll be fine.”