Basketball Preview: Ohio State Begins Its Big Ten Schedule on the Road At Penn State

By Griffin Strom on December 5, 2021 at 8:35 am
Kyle Young
Joseph Maiorana – USA TODAY Sports

As much as Ohio State’s upset win over top-ranked Duke deserves celebration, the Buckeyes can’t afford not to move on.

Penn State (4-3) Bryce Jordan Center 7:30 p.m. BTN

Ohio State begins conference play Sunday when the Buckeyes head back on the road to take on Penn State in what will only be the second true road game in front of fans they’ve played since early 2020. Ohio State lost its first road game of the year to Xavier, and if the Buckeyes don’t refocus after the high of Tuesday’s thrilling victory, they could easily end up with another defeat away from home.

“(The message) better have been received. We got to turn the page and do it quickly,” said Ohio State assistant coach Ryan Pedon, who ran practice Friday while Chris Holtmann dealt with a non-COVID-19 illness. “Great win, emotional win, but you gotta be able to compartmentalize the wins and the losses and block out the noise, whether that’s positive or negative. Older players know that and understand that, and we’ll lean on them to guide the mindset of that locker room … the good teams understand that you’ve got to pick up and move on very quickly.”

Penn State has started the season 4-3 under first-year head coach Micah Shrewsberry, and despite losing several key pieces from last year’s team to the transfer portal – Buckeye guard Jamari Wheeler included – the Nittany Lions still have a few key contributors from 2020-21 that are leading the way for the group this season.

Third-year wing Seth Lundy, senior guard Sam Sessoms and fifth-year big man John Harrar have all been standout performers for Penn State, but the Nittany Lions have still lost to three unranked opponents thus far in Massachusetts, LSU and Miami (Florida). 

Penn State lost its first five games in Big Ten play a season ago, and the Buckeyes present a difficult task, but the Nittany Lions played them close in both matchups last year.

Three Things to Watch For

Lowest-scoring team in the conference

Penn State ranks among the 100 lowest-scoring teams in all of Division I NCAA basketball, and in the Big Ten, the Nittany Lions are dead last in points per game. Penn State is averaging 67.3 points through seven contests, but the Nittany Lions have put up 60 points or fewer on three occasions. Penn State is middle of the pack in the conference in field goal percentage both inside the 3-point line and beyond it, but the Nittany Lions are one of the worst offensive rebounding teams in the Big Ten, and we’ll talk about their turnover issues below.

Turnover margin

The Buckeyes have had more than their fair share of turnover issues as of late, as Ohio State gave the ball away nine times in the first half alone against Duke and a whopping 18 times in a loss to Florida the game before. But Penn State’s turnover margin this season ranks well behind the Buckeyes’ own, as the Nittany Lions have the worst mark in the Big Ten at -5.14. Four other teams in the conference are actually averaging more than Penn State’s 13 turnovers per game, but the Nittany Lions are creating just 7.9 on defense, which is the fewest amount in the Big Ten by a wide margin. If Ohio State limits its turnovers against a team that hasn’t created very many, it could bode well for the Buckeyes.

Wheeler returns to Happy Valley

There are sure to be some conflicted emotions for one Buckeye come Sunday, as Wheeler returns to the arena at which he played his home games for the last four seasons before transferring to Ohio State. Wheeler started 84 games for Penn State in his four years as a Nittany Lion, and as evidenced by his interactions with some of the Nittany Lion football players during the Ohio State-Penn State game at Ohio Stadium on Oct. 30, it’s safe to say he still has plenty of good relationships in State College. But having left the group he’ll be facing off against on Sunday, it may be all the more important for Wheeler that Ohio State gets the win at the Bryce Jordan Center.

As far as the fan reaction, Wheeler said at Friday's press conference that he believes it will be mixed.

"Some cheering, some booing, it's just how it goes," Wheeler said. "I've had a couple of fans and friends reach out to me already saying they're excited to watch the game, they're gonna be at the game and stuff like that. Obviously they're a school, we're a different school, we're competing. So I wouldn't be surprised if I got a couple boos and whatnot."

Three Important Buckeyes

Zed Key

The second-year Buckeye big man recorded a new career-high with 20 points to help upset Duke, shooting 8-for-15 from the field and proving to be a problem in the paint even for 7-foot-1 defender Mark Williams. Tuesday was Key’s first time back in the starting lineup in three games, as Joey Brunk had earned the nod from Holtmann against Seton Hall and Florida, and Key’s performance against the top team in the country should earn him an extended stay in the starting five moving forward.

“All those people that are clamoring for us to have a center; please, please, he’s a young kid who is growing. He is a center,” Holtmann said of Key. “He’s 6-8. He’s a little bit shorter than Terence Dials. But he has a 7-1 wingspan, he can score in the low post. He’s gotta get more fit. But he can be a load down there.”

Cedric Russell

Russell’s slow start to the season had been a disappointment to those that expected him to shoulder some of Duane Washington’s scoring load from the shooting guard position, but the Louisiana transfer sprang to life against Duke with a 12-point performance that saw him score six of the Buckeyes’ final 10 points during a 12-0 run to close out the night. Russell made clutch plays on both sides of the floor for Ohio State, and despite entering the game with just three points on the season, it was a showing that could completely turn around the trajectory of Russell’s year in Columbus.

“It was a bunch of emotions, but I didn’t give up on myself because at the end of the day I’m not a quitter, and that’s not what I came up here for,” Russell said after the Duke game.

Meechie Johnson Jr.

Inconsistency continues to plague Johnson, who has seemed capable of being a top-two or three scoring option for the Buckeyes at times, but has also largely disappeared on offense in the past couple of games. Since hitting the game-winning 3-pointer to sink Seton Hall on Nov. 22, Johnson has scored just two points in the last two games, shooting 1-for-7 against Florida and 0-for-3 against the Blue Devils. The 16 minutes Johnson logged against Duke were his fewest of the season thus far, and he’ll need to up his offensive output in order to earn more in the immediate future.

Three Important Nittany Lions

Player Position Height Weight Stats
SAM SESSOMS G 6-0 189 14.3 PPG, 4.9 RPG
MYLES DREAD G 6-4 235 6.6 PPG, 2.7 RPG
JALEN PICKETT G 6-4 202 9.6 PPG, 4.6 APG
SETH LUNDY F 6-6 217 15.1 PPG, 6 RPG
JOHN HARRAR F 6-9 240 10.6 PPG, 10.9 RPG

Seth Lundy

Penn State’s leading scorer at 15.1 points per game, Lundy has upped his sophomore scoring average by five points this season. The junior forward is shooting 45 percent from the field and 34 percent from the 3-point line, and has already had multiple 20-point scoring efforts through seven games. The Buckeyes know all about Lundy’s ability to score the ball in a hurry, as the 6-foot-6 wing put up 26 on Ohio State during a Jan. 27 Buckeye win last season, and he is sure to be a factor in this contest as well.

Sam Sessoms

A two-time All-AEC selection at Binghamton in his first two years of college basketball, Sessoms came off the bench in his first season with Penn State in 2020-21, averaging 8.2 points and 2.3 assists in 20.7 minutes of action. This year, Sessoms is a starter putting up 14.3 points per game for the Nittany Lions, which is second only to Lundy. The 6-foot guard is shooting a career-high 51.3 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from beyond the arc, and he’s second on the team with an average of 3.6 assists per night.

John Harrar

Although he tested the transfer portal this offseason, Harrar remained with the Nittany Lion program and is subsequently enjoying career-best numbers in his fifth year. The 6-foot-9 forward is averaging 10.6 points and 10.9 boards so far, and is shooting an eye-popping 75 percent from the field. Much like the Buckeyes’ Kyle Young, some of Harrar’s contributions don’t show up in the box score. But now more than ever, Harrar is putting impressive numbers on the board for the Nittany Lions.

How It Plays Out

Line: Ohio State -3.5, O/U 132.5

Penn State will not possess the same kind of size advantage that has led to high offensive rebounding totals for Ohio State’s opponents this season, and the Nittany Lions also struggle to turn their opponents over. Those have been two of the chief issues for the Buckeyes this season, and if neither one plagues them on Sunday, this should be an Ohio State win on the road.

Prediction: Ohio State 76, Penn State 65

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