Basketball Preview: No. 6 Ohio State Opens Big Ten Play With a Tough Matchup Against Penn State

By David Wertheim on December 7, 2019 at 7:00 am
Duane Washington

Ohio State earned marquee non-conference wins over Cincinnati, Villanova, and North Carolina before Big Ten play, and it'll have the chance to earn a couple more versus West Virginia and Kentucky in a few weeks.

But this weekend, Big Ten play starts. 

As part of the expanded conference schedule, each Big Ten team plays two games against conference foes in December before fully delving into league play in early January. The Buckeyes' first challenger will be Penn State at noon on Saturday. 

Who Where When TV
Penn State (7-1) Value City Arena 12:00 p.m. BTN

“(Penn State is) certainly playing as well as any team we've played all year, Chris Holtmann said. I think they're a bonafide NCAA Tournament team and a top-25 team. They're really tough, really well coached." 

Holtmann has talked recently about how this month will say a lot about the prospects of Ohio State can be in the long run, and early indications say that they can be pretty dang good. With the youngest roster Holtmann has ever coached, Ohio State has wins over Cincinnati and No. 23 Villanova at home, and just walloped No. 7 North Carolina on the road. 

Saturday will mark the first Big Ten game of the season, and the first in the careers of the Buckeyes’ four freshmen.

"[Penn State has] a great team toughness and a real togetherness about them," Holtmann said. "I think they're a really really good team. Well coached, tough, come at you aggressive. Everybody knew they were coming in this season and projected to be a really good team and that's what they are."

Penn State Preview

It all begins with Lamar Stevens, a 22-year-old Philadelphia native who is the Nittany Lions' leading scorer.

The 6-foot-8, 225-pound senior is the unquestioned leader for Penn State, averaging 17.5 points and 7.9 rebounds per game.

"Well I think he's tremendous," Holtmann said. "He's certainly one of the toughest matchups in the entire country. No question. I think he's probably more motivated to have a great year to get to the tournament."

Penn State also features two other players scoring in double figures: sophomore guard Myreon Jones, averaging 13.1 points per game, and Mike Watkins, who is averaging a double-double with 11.3 points and 10 rebounds per game. 

Watkins, like Stevens, has been here before. He was part of the 2017-18 team that beat Ohio State three times, including once in the Big Ten tournament. That team lost just nine games all year, but three of them came to the Nittany Lions. Penn State has always played the Buckeyes tough. 

"They're a very good team," Andre Wesson said. "They've got one loss. They're real physical. Since I've been here, every time we played them, it's come down to the wire."

While it has taken Pat Chambers a little while to get this program going (this is his ninth season as Nittany Lions head coach and he has yet to make the NCAA Tournament), it is no secret that this is probably his best team yet in State College. With a good defense, plenty of physicality and three solid scorers, Penn State represents a difficult test for the Buckeyes less than 72 hours after they tipped off in Chapel Hill.

Ohio State Preview

In a game with several intriguing matchups, Ohio State will be faced with having to defend a trio of solid scorers.

The Buckeyes have the second-most efficient defense in the country, according to the KenPom rankings, and they will certainly have to show it off yet again. On the other side of the ball, however, Ohio State will need to get both Wesson's going as they could be tasked with tough matchups on defense – with Kaleb guarding Watkins, and Andre possibly on Stevens.

Kaleb Wesson is currently leading the team with 12.4 points per game, but one of the biggest surprises of the season has been the emergence of sophomore guard Duane Washington, who lit up North Carolina for 18 points on Wednesday.

Washington is currently averaging 11.1 points per game on a (likely unsustainable) 51.4 percent three-point shooting rate. Washington was thrust into the starting lineup when Andre Wesson suffered an eye injury in the season opener against Cincinnati, and he hasn't let go of that spot, even since Wesson returned. It has been a welcome sight for an Ohio State team that wondered where its scoring would come from beyond Kaleb Wesson. 

Kaleb Wesson must be put in positions to thrive if Ohio State wants to make a deep run this season, and especially in this game with a tough matchup against Watkins. ESPN's Jay Bilas noted on Wednesday's broadcast that Wesson has been making some plays this season that he would not have made last year, and he needs to continue that in order for Ohio State to be successful through Big Ten play. 

On the defensive end, Ohio State has dominated. Opponents have averaged just 52.2 points per game against the Buckeyes (fourth fewest in college basketball), and after largely controlling Cole Anthony on Wednesday, the matchup with Stevens will be key.

The Buckeyes did not have to deal with Armando Bacot much against North Carolina due to an unfortunate injury sidelining Bacot for a majority of the game, so Watkins will be the first elite big man Ohio State will face. It will be a challenge that Kaleb Wesson will certainly embrace, as he hasn't had to do yet this year. 

Other Notes

  • Holtmann said that freshman big man Ibrahima Diallo is feeling better. Diallo did not make the trip to North Carolina due to having strep throat. Holtmann also mentioned that no other members of the team were affected by the sickness.
  • In an effort to get more students to the game, Ohio State offered a $10 concession credit to any students who purchased student tickets for this game.
  • Penn State is coming off two wins over power conference teams, as they throttled Syracuse in the NIT Season Tip Off and then Wake Forest in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. 
  • The Nittany Lions do not have any players from Ohio on their roster, but they do have three from Philadelphia, an area that Pat Chambers has targeted extensively in his tenure at Penn State. 

How It Plays Out

This game could go in any direction. Ohio State is coming off an emotional road victory less than 72 hours ago with an extremely quick turnaround, and the Nittany Lions are playing very good basketball right now and always play the Buckeyes tough.

With that said, the Buckeyes probably have the more talented roster top to bottom. Either way, it should be an intense battle. 

Prediction: Ohio State 68, Penn State 64

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