NEW YORK CITY – For the third time this season, Ohio State will take on Penn State, still looking for its first victory.
|Penn State (20-12, 9-9)||Madison Square Garden||6:30 p.m.||BTN|
The Buckeyes have defeated every team in the Big Ten this season except for the Nittany Lions, who defeated Ohio State in Columbus on Jan. 25 thanks to a buzzer-beater from Tony Carr. A few weeks later, Penn State blasted the Buckeyes by 23 in State College, Pa., completing the regular season sweep of OSU, and bouncing the Scarlet and Gray from the Associated Press top 10.
After scoring just 10 points in the Feb. 15 loss to Penn State, Keita Bates-Diop said he wouldn't mind another shot at the Nittany Lions, after going winless against them in the regular season.
"I would like one," Bates-Diop said when asked if he wanted another shot at Penn State. "But I have no preference either way."
Ohio State could have added motivation not only to beat Penn State, but also to simply win a game in the tournament. The Buckeyes were bounced in the first round by Rutgers in the 2017 tournament, and head coach Chris Holtmann believes his team will come out with something to prove on Friday night in the Big Apple.
"I am sure they are going to be anxious to want to play well. Really, that is all you can expect," Holtmann said Wednesday. "Hopefully you can do enough to knock the door down. They are going to be really motivated. They are excited about this. I think they are excited about what comes after this, but our focus is on the Big Ten Tournament right now."
Prior to Penn State's second round game against Northwestern, it was revealed that the Nittany Lions' top rebounder and third-leading scorer, Mike Watkins, will not be available for the entirety of the Big Ten Tournament with a right knee injury.
Watkins averaged 12.1 points and 8.9 boards per game while also blocking 2.3 shots per game, good for second in the Big Ten. The 6-foot-9 junior collected an 11-point, 10-rebound double-double in a 79-56 win over Ohio State on Feb. 15, and swatted two shots in 29 minutes of action.
In its game against the Wildcats on Thursday, Penn State started rarely-used forward John Harrar. Harrar appeared in just 19 games this season and averaged 3.8 minutes per game entering the postseason. He was held scoreless Thursday night against the Wildcats and played just six minutes despite being inserted into the starting lineup. Julian Moore, who played in all but one game in 2017-18, played the bulk of the minutes in place of Watkins. He played 24 minutes off the bench against Northwestern and scored two points, collected three boards and three blocks in the 65-57 victory.
Like they have in both of their wins over Ohio State, the Nittany Lions were lights out from behind the three-point arc against Northwestern. Carr buried 6-of-10 shots from long range, while Josh Reaves and Shep Garner added seven more makes from deep. Conversely, Penn State limited the Wildcats to just 5-of-19 shooting from behind the arc, which helped even out the plus-eight advantage Northwestern had in points in the paint.
Playing a man down, Penn State's bench struggled to produce, however, combining to score just five points in 38 minutes of action.
Ohio State enters the tournament as the No. 2 seed, but perhaps more importantly, with fresh legs. After playing a condensed Big Ten schedule, the Buckeyes earned a week off to recharge, a rest that was particularly important for the Buckeye veterans.
Bates-Diop, C.J. Jackson and Jae’Sean Tate all averaged 30 minutes or more per game this season, and at one point during the Buckeyes' regular-season finale against Indiana, Holtmann said he called a timeout purely to give Tate rest. Jackson said Wednesday that after nearly a week of rest, he felt as though he finally had his legs back under him ahead of the conference tournament.
"I feel refreshed," Jackson said. "We had a day off yesterday. It has almost been a week now since we last played, so I feel ready to go and back to 100 percent."
Jackson’s game-winning shot against Indiana somewhat overshadowed not only the lack of rest that Ohio State – and all Big Ten teams – have had, but also the improved production from both Jackson and the rest of the Buckeye guards since a 12-point loss to Michigan.
After Jackson, Kam Williams and Andrew Dakich combined for just seven points against the Wolverines, the trio put together critical minutes against both Rutgers and Indiana to give the Buckeyes momentum heading into the postseason. Jackson and Williams, especially, lifted Ohio State offensively in key situations in the final two regular-season games.
Jackson poured in 18 points against Rutgers before finishing with 13 against the Hoosiers. Add in Williams' 13 and 15 points, respectively, in the last two games, and Ohio State has found a resurgence offensively from its guards that will likely be needed in the postseason.
If the guards struggle again, Bates-Diop – fresh off his Big Ten Player of the Year award – would likely need to provide the heroics like he did in the first game against Penn State, when he knocked in a trio of three-pointers in the final minutes to pull Ohio State even. The redshirt junior is capable of dominating a game, even against the Nittany Lions. He scored 25 points on 8-of-13 shooting in the first matchup, nearly willing OSU to a win.
How It Will Play Out
Both teams now have a game under their belt at Madison Square Garden, as Ohio State steamrolled Minnesota at MSG, 67-49, on Jan. 20.
Without Watkins, the Nittany Lions will be without their best post presence, which could open the door for the likes of Bates-Diop and Kaleb Wesson to crash the offensive glass and get second-chance opportunities. In addition, Carr will be asked to do more with less on short rest, which also plays into Ohio State's hand.
It is hard to beat a team three times in one season, especially with a man down. Ohio State has health, rest and revenge on its side, but that still might not be enough to beat a team that has had its number this season. This game could very well come down to another last-second shot. Either way, we could be in for a classic matchup at the world's most famous arena.
Prediction: Ohio State 69, Penn State 66