Penn State has some history with the Buckeyes.
Ohio State lost to the Nittany Lions twice in the 2017-2018 season. If the Bucks had beaten Penn State just once that season, they would have won the Big Ten regular-season title.
Then, in the second round of the conference tournament, the two teams met again. Penn State won, again.
While it is still early, Ohio State could be competing for the Big Ten title once again. The Buckeyes were off to an impressive 8-0 record coming into today with two wins against top-ten teams.
And they weren't about to let the visitors spoil their conference opener.
The Nittany Lions boasted a 7-1 record coming into the matchup with two wins against ACC opponents. Led by 6-foot-8 forward Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins, the Big Ten's leader in blocks per game, Penn State possesses what may be its best basketball team in recent history.
"Penn State was playing as well as any team we've played all year," head coach Chris Holtmann said. "I think they're a bona fide NCAA tournament team."
Both Stevens and Watkins were a part of the team that halted the Buckeyes' Big Ten championship run. And for Kaleb Wesson, Watkins has always been a tough player to go up against.
"[Watkins] is a good player," Wesson said. "Strong guy. Every time we play, we just battle it out. He's out there boarding, putting up points, getting blocks for his team. He plays a great role for his team."
In his four games against Watkins, the Buckeye big man had averaged just seven points and 2.5 rebounds per game. Today, he dwarfed those averages, putting up a season-high 28 points and 10 rebounds, giving him his third double-double of the season.
This year, Wesson got his points in a different way. Instead of trying to play bully-ball against an athletic, 6-foot-9 center, he brought Watkins outside. Wesson attempted six three-pointers and got four of them to fall, giving him a new season-high.
The big man and Chris Holtmann both credited Wesson's offseason transformation for his success against the familiar foe.
"I think it is all credit to Kaleb," Holtmann said. "He continues to round his game. He is pretty good at shooting the ball and he is a mismatch when he can do it as effectively as he was." Later, Holtmann added, "I thought he looked like one of the best players in the country."
Although it always felt as if the Buckeyes had control of the game, the visitors did not go easily. Lamar Stevens, Penn State's leading scorer, was a huge part of that. He had 11 points and shot 50% from the field but was limited by his foul trouble, an ongoing issue for him this season.
Stevens played just 17 minutes against the Bucks before fouling out with 13 minutes left in the second half. Even then, Penn State continued to fight, cutting the deficit to just eight with 12 minutes to go.
A 20-5 run, sparked by two quick Duane Washington Jr. threes followed by four threes from the Wesson brothers pushed the deficit back up to 23. Ohio State would lead by as much as 35.
|Luther Muhammad||4/5 (80%)|
|Duane Washington Jr.||4/6 (67%)|
|Kaleb Wesson||4/6 (67%)|
|Justin Ahrens||1/2 (50%)|
|Andre Wesson||1/3 (33%)|
As a team, the Buckeyes shot 12/18 from beyond the arc in the second half and 14/26 for the game. Five different players hit at least one three-pointer.
Andre Wesson gave the coaching staff credit for the team's shooting success, saying the "drive-and-kick" gameplan was the perfect counter to Penn State's aggressive defensive style.
"It was kind of the gameplan that we were trying to go in with, just drive-and-kick basketball," he said. "We knew that they kind of extend out in the passing lanes and that driving lanes would be open. With them collapsing and everything we knew we could spread it out."
The gameplan was unselfish and worked to perfection. C.J. Walker ended with seven assists, tying his season-high, and the Buckeyes as a whole dished out 15 dimes. Ohio State finished with 14 made threes, its most of the season, and four players in double figures.
Defensively, it was Ohio State's worst game of the season. It is nitpicking, but the Buckeyes allowed a season-high 74 points, even if they did hold Penn State below its season average of 80 points per game.
While the Nittany Lions stumbled out of the gates, they crashed the offensive glass extremely well. The visitors grabbed 11 offensive boards and took 20 free throws, helping them overcome their early shooting deficiencies.
Even with its poor defensive performance, Ohio State won by 32 points and the Buckeyes are now leading the country in scoring margin. Additionally, they took over the top spot in the KenPom rankings.
With the local team's huge win in Chapel Hill and the quick turnaround, the upset potential was real. Instead, Ohio State dismantled an inferior team, giving Chris Holtmann even more confidence in his team.
"Leadership. Leadership. I learned that I think that our leadership in that area is really good. That's maturity and that's leadership."
While it is still early, this run has all the looks of something special. Efficient shooting, suffocating defense, and experienced leadership are invaluable in March.