Saturday brings a litmus test of Ohio State’s winning streak.
The Buckeyes, who have won seven straight games to push their record to 8-1 on the season with a 1-0 start to Big Ten play, get their first true road contest 10 games into the season. Ohio State has played two neutral site games this year, but neither of those contests brought the hostility that an opposing conference crowd will.
Penn State awaits Ohio State in State College, Pa.’s Bryce Jordan Center this evening. The Nittany Lions are under new leadership with former VCU head coach Mike Rhoades taking over the reins from Micah Shrewsberry, who accepted a job as Notre Dame’s head coach this offseason.
Ohio State is 2-2 at Bryce Jordan Center under Chris Holtmann, but with a 4-5 Penn State team on tap, the Buckeyes will hope to carry the momentum they’ve gained in recent weeks through to an antagonistic environment.
"You guys that have followed us for years know that’s always a very difficult place to play," Holtmann said. "I think they have a really good team that is full of transfers from VCU. ... I’m anxious to see how our guys do in a real, true road environment."
Need to know
Transfers, transfers everywhere
Nine scholarship spots on Penn State’s roster are filled by players who transferred in from a different school this offseason. That includes four of the team’s five starters and eight of the nine players who average at least 10 minutes per game for the Nittany Lions.
Weak on the glass, weak with the pass
Penn State is outside the top 300 teams in Division I in two pretty big statistical categories: Rebounds per game and assists per game. Only one of the Nittany Lions’ major contributors stands above 6-8 and just two players on their entire roster average four rebounds per contest or more, resulting in a team that ranks 313th in the country with 33 boards per game.
As assists go, Penn State is 325th with 10.8 per tilt. It averages more turnovers than that at 11.8. Clearly, with all the transfers the Nittany Lions pieced their team together with and no players back that so much as started a game last year, there are still some kinks to work out in terms of how they feed each other the rock.
It’s also worth noting the Nittany Lions don’t enjoy a lot of success from the perimeter, ranking 300th in the country by shooting 29.7% from 3.
Entering on a losing streak
The Nittany Lions will contrast the Buckeyes’ seven-game winning streak with a five-game losing streak going into their weekend meeting. The most recent of those defeats required overtime on the road against Maryland, but uglier losses to Bucknell, Butler and Rhoades’ own former VCU squad are also included in the skid. Then-No. 12 Texas A&M, who also beat Ohio State earlier this season, is the only ranked team that’s responsible for a Penn State loss.
Three Important Buckeyes
One of four players who transferred out of Penn State’s program following Shrewsberry’s departure last year, Mahaffey landed at Ohio State and had perhaps his best game so far this season in the Buckeyes’ 84-64 win over Miami (Ohio) on Wednesday. Much like when Jamison Battle faced off with his former team two games ago, there will be some emotions involved for Mahaffey against Penn State on Saturday.
"I’m excited more than anything," Mahaffey said. "They have a really good team. Obviously, I have a few former teammates on that team, so excited to play against them for sure, we were talking a little bit prior. Just excited to go up there and get a win, really. This is the first Big Ten road game, and we all know how hard it is to win in the Big Ten on the road."
With this being Ohio State’s first road test, strong leadership and dependable stars will be important for its success. Thornton fits both those bills. Named a captain as a freshman last year, Thornton has emerged as the leader of this OSU squad, with Holtmann going so far as to say that the team goes as Thornton goes. He sits at 18.7 points and 4.3 assists per game on the year, both team highs.
Both of the Nittany Lions’ leading scorers come from their backcourt, meaning perimeter defense will be paramount against Penn State. Bonner has been Ohio State’s biggest menace in that area, providing great coverage on that side of the floor with his athleticism and veteran experience.
"(It's about) sticking together," Bonner said of winning on the road. "The best teams stick together and just do whatever it takes to win. A team effort. That's what we're going to try to do when we go to Penn State."
Three Notable Nittany Lions
|16.2 PPG, 2.8 APG
|Ace Baldwin Jr.
|14.6 PPG, 2.3 SPG
|Nick Kern Jr.
|6.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG
|7.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG
|10.4 PPG, 9.3 RPG
Clary is the only major contributor to this year’s Penn State squad that was on it a year prior. His loyalty has been rewarded with a team-high 16.2 points per game while he distributes 2.8 assists per contest as the team’s point guard. A season ago he averaged 3.7 points while seeing the floor 10.4 minutes per game.
Ace Baldwin Jr.
Baldwin, Clary’s starting backcourt mate, is the most noteworthy of Rhoades’ VCU transfers and perhaps Penn State’s best all-around player. He averages 14.6 points per game, a conference-leading 2.3 steals per game and a team-high 3.4 assists per contest.
"Terrific player," Holtmann said. "Terrific two-way player. Phenomenal. Clary’s a terrific player too that was with them last year. ... They’ve got a really good group and we’ll need to be ready."
Easily Penn State’s biggest threat on the interior, Wahab is averaging close to a double-double on the season, with 10.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. He adds 1.6 blocks per game, a team-high that's tied for sixth-most in the Big Ten.
How It Plays Out
Line: Ohio State -6, O/U 149.5
There’s real talent in Penn State’s backcourt but I don’t feel the Nittany Lions as a team are as far along in their development and chemistry as Ohio State. Any road game in the Big Ten is sure to have some hiccups, but I see a three-score win for the Buckeyes in the end.
Prediction: Ohio State 75, Penn State 68