Only somebody supremely naive would believe Ohio State’s coaches haven’t spent any time looking ahead to Sunday afternoon’s clash with Michigan. The nation’s No. 3 ranking, a reputation as the best of the Big Ten, a major resume-booster for teams looking to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and bragging rights in the rivals’ only matchup of the regular season are all expected to be on the line in three days.
As expected, however, Chris Holtmann denied spending even “one second” looking at the Wolverines when asked about the lingering showdown. Like almost any other college basketball head coach who doesn’t want to make it sound like he or his players are looking past their upcoming opponent, he publicly refuted that as a remote possibility.
“Our sole focus is Penn State,” Holtmann said on Wednesday.
|Penn State (11-8, 6-6)||University Park, Pennsylvania (Bryce Jordan Center)||8 p.m.||BTN|
The Nittany Lions welcome Holtmann’s Buckeyes to the Bryce Jordan Center on Thursday for the latter half of their two-game regular-season series. The game tips off at 8 p.m. on Big Ten Network.
Unlike what will happen over the weekend between Ohio State and Michigan with the eyes of college basketball on the Schottenstein Center, the Buckeyes come into the day as the undisputed favorites. They’re on an absolute tear, winning their past six games and nine of their past 10 to earn a No. 4 ranking with their 17-4 record. They have won their past five road games, too.
Penn State, conversely, just lost on Sunday to a 5-13 Nebraska team that is 1-10 in Big Ten play. Nebraska! It somehow still has a shot at the NCAA tournament even with a 7-10 record at this point, though. That's largely due to marquee wins against Wisconsin, Rutgers, Virginia Tech, Maryland and VCU. To make March Madness a reality, interim head coach Jim Ferry is essentially faced with a must-win Thursday night against Ohio State.
“I think we've got great respect for Penn State in the fact that we were down eight with a few minutes to go here,” Holtmann said. “Let's be honest, the last several years the games haven't been close; they beat us handily. I think our guys are well aware of how good this Penn State team is.”
To recognize the threat of a Penn State team with an unimposing record but impressive victories, Ohio State needs only to rack its brain to remember what happened 22 days ago.
The Nittany Lions took the lead less than five minutes into the second half after trailing the vast majority of the first half by as many as 11 points, and their advantage grew to eight points with eight minutes left. Shots from E.J. Liddell and Duane Washington Jr., clutch free throws and Penn State scoring just six points in the last five minutes allowed the Buckeyes to escape with an 83-79 win. Surely, they’d prefer to avoid another nailbiter in Round 2.
“They're really gifted,” Holtmann said. “They're disruptive defensively. Lead the league in turnover percentage. They're great on the glass. They're terrific offensively. Jim's done a great great job. They're well-coached and play extremely hard.”
Seth Lundy and co.
The way 6-foot-6, 219-pound forward Seth Lundy played three weeks ago, it would be fair for Ohio State fans who don’t tune into any other Penn State games to assume he’s an All-Big Ten lock. The sophomore dropped 26 points on 7-of-16 shooting, making four 3s and eight free throws. He got what he wanted for the first 30 minutes, then made only one shot in the last 10 minutes before Musa Jallow subbed in to lock him down late.
In fact, that was the most recent time Lundy scored more than eight points in a game. A wildly up-and-down scorer, he has made 7-of-34 shots in his five games since lighting up Columbus.
Lundy will be a focus for Ohio State, and so will guards Myreon Jones (14.9 points per game) and Izaiah Brockington (13.8 points), along with John Harrar (9 points and 8.9 rebounds). With some additional help from Myles Dread (7.4 points) and Sam Sessoms (8.9 points), Penn State features the 33rd-most efficient offense in the country, shooting low percentages but grabbing loads of offensive rebounds and avoiding too many turnovers.
“Their physicality and scoring prowess at the guard and the wing spot is a huge challenge for us,” Holtmann said. “Lundy and Dread and Brockington and Jones on down the line. And also, one of the things we didn't mention, one of their leading scorers (Sessoms) didn't play against us last time. That's another weapon for them.
Will Penn State Get Second Chances?
Within conference play, no Big Ten team grabs offensive rebounds at a higher rate than Penn State (32.9 percent). Ohio State needs no education on the matter after seeing the Nittany Lions rebound 11 of their misses. Specifically, Harrar – a 6-foot-9, 240-pound senior forward – reined in six offensive boards. The trio of Kyle Yong, E.J. Liddell and Zed Key will once again be deployed to contain him on the glass. Harrar's length helps him to rank 12th in the country with an individual offensive-rebounding rate of 16.1 percent.
For its part, Ohio State ranks second in Big Ten play in opposing offensive-rebound rate (23.9 percent). But it allowed Indiana to reel in 11 offensive boards in its most recent game.
“We're going to really be tested on that tomorrow night,” Holtmann said. “It's an area we have to consistently get better to keep the numbers where they're at. It's been a point of emphasis.”
Harrar’s ability to reward the Nittany Lions with extra opportunities to score is key to maximizing their offensive attack. It’s up to the forwards of Ohio State to prevent it from happening.
Another Big One For E.J. Liddell? And Who Else?
The first game between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions included Liddell making his career-high 10 free throws to help him reach 22 points, the second-most in a single game in his young career.
Ohio State will again look to Liddell, who’s coming off a 19-point performance against the Hoosiers, for buckets. Yet, the hallmark of this team has been its depth and ability to have several players come through in a given game almost in unpredictable fashion.
Maybe it’s Washington’s time to go off for a fourth game in a row in double figures. Perhaps Justice Sueing will follow up his 16-point double-double with another in a string of solid games. Or it could be Kyle Young, the steady forward with an expanding game. CJ Walker has scored double figures in three of the past four games, and Justin Ahrens remains a near-50-percent shooter from 3. Zed Key and Seth Towns will get up some shots, too.
Ohio State has a deadly offense – ranked fourth nationally in adjusted efficiency – and its penchant for having a variety of players step up as scorers makes it truly special.
Prediction: Ohio State 77, Penn State 67