The final stretch of games for Ohio State's surprising regular season is arguably its toughest stretch of games for Chris Holtmann's first Buckeye team.
Ohio State is set to play three of its last four regular season games away from home, starting with a trip to State College, Pa. to take on Penn State, the only team to hand the Buckeyes a conference loss this season.
|Penn State (18-9, 8-6)||Bryce Jordan Center||8 p.m.||BTN|
The Nittany Lion fan base is planning a white-out of the Bryce Jordan Center in an effort to create a raucous atmosphere as the No. 8-ranked Buckeyes invade Happy Valley.
Holtmann said Wednesday that while having played in an intense environment at Purdue on Feb. 7 was beneficial, it doesn't necessarily mean the Buckeyes will play well again in front of a hostile crowd.
"I think it helps. I think in many ways, we have more matchup issues with Penn State than anybody in the league. Every team is kind of different. The Purdue game was great to play in that environment, and to be able to win that," Holtmann said. "To sneak that one out when it didn't look good, was encouraging, but I don't think you can say, 'We responded well to adversity this game, so it's guaranteed we are going to do it the next time,' because that is not the case. We are going to have to go out and prove it again."
Since defeating Ohio State on Tony Carr's buzzer-beating heave from just inside of half court on Jan. 25, the Nittany Lions have won four of their last five games, with the lone loss coming to Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich.
Carr is pushing Ohio State's Keita Bates-Diop for the Big Ten scoring title, and a second win against the Buckeyes could very well get Penn State into the NCAA Tournament, as the Nittany Lions sit firmly on the bubble and in sixth place in the conference.
The Nittany Lions, much like the Buckeyes, get the majority of their scoring from their starting five, as all five starters average 10 or more points per game. One of those starters is Josh Reaves, who missed a portion of the season for academic reasons. He returned for Penn State's victory over Ohio State, in which he scored 10 points off the bench, before returning to the starting lineup against the Spartans.
Holtmann said he believes the Nittany Lions are a team that could be even higher in the Big Ten standings if Reaves would have been available for the entire season.
"I really think if Josh Reaves had been available for their other Big Ten games, we would be looking at a team right now that would be one, two or three in the league with as good as they are and the pieces they have around them," Holtmann said. "I think they are really talented and play well together. I think (Reaves) adds a whole different element to them because he plays his role at such a high level."
Reaves has proven his versatility all season, as a long, athletic guard that can rebound the basketball as well as provide immediate scoring. He averages nearly five rebounds per game while also shooting the ball at a 52.5 percent clip from the floor, and leads the Big Ten in steals per game, swiping 2.3 per contest.
Penn State, of course, would not be where it is at this point in the season without Carr, who Holtmann described as a potential first-round NBA draft pick. Carr ranks in the top five of the Big Ten in both scoring (19.3 ppg) and assists (4.9 apg) while shooting 46.2 percent from behind the three-point arc.
His backcourt mate, Shep Garner, is also one of the league's premier three-point shooters. The senior has connected on 41 percent of his long balls this season and has buried 73 shots from behind the arc this season. The Nittany Lions connected on a school-record 78.6 percent of their three-point shots against Ohio State in the first meeting between the two schools, as both Garner and Carr hit on 4-of-5 attempts from deep.
Inside, Penn State features one of the leagues best shot-blockers in Mike Watkins, who swats 2.5 shots per game. Fellow frontcourt player Lamar Stevens gave Ohio State problems inside in the first matchup, getting to the free throw line nine times, finishing with 15 points in the win over the Buckeyes.
Ohio State received a piece of good news Wednesday when Holtmann announced that veteran guard Kam Williams would return from suspension and be available to play against the Nittany Lions. However, what his role will be moving forward is unknown.
Holtmann said Wednesday that Williams will have to earn back his role with the Buckeyes, whatever that might be, as the regular season winds down.
"We had conversations and meetings that I will leave private. He has fulfilled those. I don't know that I can be certain on what it will look like in terms of his role, because obviously we have played well in this last stretch," Holtmann said Wednesday. "He will have to earn his way back to whatever role gives our team the best chance of winning."
In Williams' absence, sophomore forward Andre Wesson has stepped into the starting role and has performed admirably. Wesson scored just two points in his first career start against Illinois, but then exploded for a career-high 13 points – including a crucial banked-in three-pointer – in a 64-63 upset victory over Purdue on Feb. 7.
Holtmann said he doesn't anticipate making a change to his starting lineup ahead of the Penn State matchup, but wouldn't rule out a last-minute change either, stating he was curious to see how Ohio State's final practice before the game went.
"Both guys have strengths that they bring. The reality is, it's hard to play 10 or 11 guys right now. Most teams are playing eight or nine guys, so minutes get trimmed a little bit," Holtmann said. "Kam returning will affect some guys' minutes potentially, but it could also affect his minutes. He is going to have to understand that."
While Williams' minutes could be impacted, the likelihood is that C.J. Jackson will continue to play an integral role for Ohio State down the stretch. Jackson, who left Ohio State's win over Iowa early with cramping issues, is expected to be full-go for the Buckeyes against the Nittany Lions on Thursday night.
Jackson said he has confidence in Wesson to continue to produce in his starting role, adding Wesson's presence gives Ohio State added help defensively.
"I think it balances us more on the defensive end. Andre is good at making shots which helps us a lot," Jackson said. "Defensively, we guard a little bit better with him, Keita, Jae'Sean Tate being able to switch a lot of screens that we have to go through. Defensively, it stabilizes us a little bit more."
That added defensive boost could prove critical for Ohio State, as Penn State's 82 points scored on the Buckeyes in the first meeting were the most points Holtmann's squad has allowed all season to a conference opponent.
How It All Plays Out
While Penn State is playing at home and beat Ohio State once already this season, it is probably unrealistic to think that the Nittany Lions are going to shoot 11-for-14 from behind the arc again, even at home.
On the other side, Ohio State is coming off a four-day break. Prior to playing the Nittany Lions the first time, the Buckeyes had played five games in a 12-day stretch, and appeared to be playing with tired legs.
The Nittany Lions have tremendous talent and are one more signature win away from becoming an NCAA Tournament team this season. A win over Ohio State could put them into the Big Dance. But the Buckeyes are playing their best basketball of the season, and have fresh legs.
Prediction: Ohio State 81, Penn State 77