Basketball Preview: Ohio State Faces Short-Notice Opponent In Penn State

By Colin Hass-Hill on January 27, 2021 at 10:10 am
Chris Holtmann, Duane Washington Jr. and CJ Walker
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Whether he found it himself or had it sent to him, Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann learned of a statistic he suddenly found himself.

Of the 25 most recent Big Ten games, the home team had won only 10 of them, Bart Torvik – the creator of www.barttorvik.comtweeted on Saturday. Holtmann, in a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, referenced the number.

Who Where When TV
Penn State (5-6, 2-5) Columbus, Ohio (Schottenstein Center) 7 p.m. BTN

“I hear all this about home-road,” Holtmann said. “The reality is every game's pretty much neutral.”

That’s the kind of thing a head coach says ahead of a two-game home stand like the one the No. 13 Buckeyes have coming up.

Before playing host to Michigan State on Sunday, Ohio State welcomes Penn State to Columbus for a Wednesday game set to tip off at 7 p.m. on Big Ten Network. Originally, this showdown was slated to take place on Jan. 6, but COVID-19 positives within the Nittany Lions’ program forced a postponement at the time.

Ultimately, because Michigan shut down its athletic department for two weeks after discovering an athlete had tested positive for the new B.1.1.7 strain of coronavirus, a date opened up to play this game in the middle of the week. Penn State was supposed to face the Wolverines on Wednesday, but they instead will get the Buckeyes – who’ve won four of their most recent five games – on the road.

Holtmann and his staff had scouted the Nittany Lions ahead of their expected date a few weeks ago. Since then, they’ve gone back for a more thorough look, especially since they’ve added some more film to dissect. Penn State recently ended a five-game skid by beating Rutgers and Northwestern at home. It also topped an 11-3 Virginia Tech team earlier this season. Holtmann claims to believe interim head coach Jim Ferry has an NCAA tournament team on his hands.

“Penn State leads the league in steals. They lead the league in offensive rebounds,” Holtmann said. “So they attack you different ways defensively and offensively. They've got a really good shooting team, really good offensive team, and then they're disruptive defensively. That's completely different in terms of their disruptions than, say, a Wisconsin who we just played who we had to really, really execute well for 40 minutes to beat that team. You have to execute really well against Penn State's defense. It's just different. It's different the way they play. They've got just tremendous ability to kind of make plays on the ball and be disruptive.”

Three Things To Watch

Paint Is The Priority

Within Big Ten play, no team has grabbed offensive rebounds at a higher rate than Penn State (35.8 percent) and no team has held opponents to a lower offensive-rebounding rate than Ohio State (23.1 percent). Their strengths will come to a head on Wednesday.

“Tomorrow, rebounding is going to be critical,” Holtmann said. “They're the No. 1 offensive-rebounding team in the league. They get loose balls better than anybody I've seen on film for that matter. They're the best at getting 50-50 balls.”

The Nittany Lions counter the Buckeyes’ front line of E.J. Liddell, Kyle Young and Zed Key with Starting big man John Harrar (6-foot-9, 240 pounds) and backup forward Trent Buttrick (6-foot-8, 240 pounds) who are surrounded by a slew of hard-nosed guards and wings, including 6-foot-6, 219-pound Seth Lundy.

Harrar, a senior, averages 7.2 points and a team-leading 8.2 rebounds in 23.8 minutes per game. Where he helps out the most is on the glass where he has the nation's eighth-best offensive-rebounding rate (17.2 percent) and a higher defensive-rebounding rate than anybody on the Buckeyes (22.9 percent). Keeping him from giving Penn State second chances will be pertinent.

Despite the success on the glass, Penn State is downright atrocious at defending the rim. Opponents shoot 56 percent from inside the 3-point arc, a rate good for 320th-best in the country. The Nittany Lions are in the bottom fifth percentile of opponents' points-per-possession around the rim on both non-post-ups (1.33 points) and on post-ups (1.25 percent), per Synergy.

So, to beat Penn State, Ohio State has to get significant production out of Liddell, Young and Key.

Guards Who Can Go Off

Both Ohio State and Penn State feature several guards primed for offensive explosions in any given game.

On the Buckeyes' side, it's Duane Washington Jr. who made only 1-of-9 shots at Wisconsin yet had previously turned his efficiency as a scorer up a notch. The 6-foot-3 junior has scored in double figures in all but two games this season, and he's crossed the 20-point threshold five times. CJ Walker, in his second game back after missing four games with torn ligaments in his right hand, will play a big role, too. Justin Ahrens could start again, too.

Penn State rolls with several quality scorers in its backcourt on an offensive rated as the 29th-most efficient in the country. Myreon Jones (15.9 points per game) and Izaiah Brockington (14.7 points per game) lead the Nittany Lions in scoring, and Sam Sessoms adds 10.3 points per game. Myles Dread, a junior guard, is a game-time decision but also manages 7.6 points per game. All four of them shoot between 36.7-41.2 percent from 3-point range.

Able To Dominate The Free-Throw Line?

This is, perhaps, a relatively small area in the grand scheme of things. But it could prove big on Wednesday.

Penn State both goes to the free-throw line at a remarkably low rate and allows opponents to take an obscene number of foul shots. Ohio State has gotten to the line more often than every other team in Big Ten play so far. Seems like an area of the game where Holtmann's team can win.

Liddell and Justice Sueing are the Buckeyes' best bets to get to the line.

Prediction: Ohio State 75, Penn State 70

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