Basketball Preview: With a Daunting Big Ten Schedule Ahead, Ohio State Faces Penn State Hoping to Enact Revenge and Snap Three-Game Losing Streak

By Andy Anders on January 20, 2024 at 6:00 am
Bruce Thornton

Three straight losses in the early stretches of Big Ten play have sapped any momentum Ohio State might have gained from a 12-2 start to the season.

Penn State
Nittany Lions
9 - 9
Value City Arena
Columbus, OH
BTNOSu -10

Midway through January, the Buckeyes’ schedule doesn’t let up anytime soon. Road contests against Nebraska (13-5) and Northwestern (13-4) are ahead for next week. Ohio State then returns home to face No. 14 Illinois (13-4) before again going to a hostile environment to play Iowa (11-6).

All those will be difficult games to come out on top in. Two wins out of that stretch might be a success for the Buckeyes, especially considering that would mean breaking their 12-game road losing streak.

The point is, if Ohio State can’t handle business at home against a .500 Penn State squad on Saturday, its long-term outlook takes an even sharper downhill turn than it already has.

There should be an element of revenge at play, too. Ohio State saw an 18-point lead evaporate during an 83-80 loss at Penn State on Dec. 9, with the Nittany Lions shooting a blistering 60.6% from the field and 8-of-15 (53.3%) from three in the second half. It marks the first repeat opponent in Big Ten play for the Buckeyes.

“(It's) a team that has really played well,” Chris Holtmann said of the Nittany Lions. “Playing there, they played really well in the second half, then (they’re) obviously coming off a really good win over Wisconsin. Athletic team, excellent guard play but their interior guys are playing well right now and good depth. So looking forward to the challenge.”

Need to Know

Badgering the competition

This subhead has two meanings.

First off, Penn State is riding high following its biggest win of the season on Tuesday, an 87-83 victory over the No. 11 Wisconsin Badgers. Wisconsin is a team that beat Ohio State in Value City Arena just 10 days ago.

Marquee wins can either lead to massive momentum or massive letdowns in the following game for an otherwise pedestrian team, so it’ll be interesting to see how the Nittany Lions come out against the Buckeyes.

Secondly, Penn State badgers opponents with a turnover-heavy defense. It collects 9.3 steals and 16.4 total takeaways per game, both best in the Big Ten, with a conference-leading turnover margin of 5.3 per game.

“We’re gonna have some turnovers tomorrow, I think what you’re trying to do is limit the ones that are in our control,” Holtmann said. “They are terrific with their hands.”

Weaknesses (usually) from three and rebounding

Penn State ranks 318th of 362 teams nationally with a three-point shooting percentage of 30.3%, while its rebounding numbers also put them at a clear disadvantage. The Nittany Lions are 340th in the nation with 32.2 rebounds per game and are outrebounded by their opponents at a clip of six boards per contest.

Neither of those numbers made much difference against Ohio State on Dec. 9, however. Penn State shot a blistering 8-of-15 (53.3%) from behind the arc in the second half and collected 14 second-chance points in the same 20 minutes, despite being outrebounded 43-31 by Ohio State for the game.

Mahaffey’s revenge part two, electric boogaloo

Saturday will be the second reunion of Ohio State sophomore wing Evan Mahaffey with his former team after he moved from State College to Columbus via the transfer portal this past offseason. In a season-high 31 minutes the first time around, he scored five points on 2-of-5 shooting with six rebounds, five assists and a blocked shot.

Three Important Buckeyes

Bruce Thornton

If Ohio State is to right itself after its three-game losing streak, it must rely on its star point guard. After combining to go 1-of-12 from three against Indiana and Wisconsin, Thornton improved a touch with a 2-for-7 afternoon from outside in the Buckeyes' most recent loss vs. Michigan as part of a 19-point performance. His 4.6 assist-to-turnover ratio will be important given Penn State’s proficiency at generating takeaways.

Roddy Gayle Jr.

Gayle took a small step toward breaking out of his recent slump against Michigan, shooting 3-of-8 from the field to make him 14-of-53 (26.4%) in the four games since his 32-point outburst against West Virginia. He’s had 13 turnovers with just five assists in that stretch.

Part of the struggle in a cold streak is staying the course mentally, per Gayle.

“It’s extremely mental,” Gayle said. “It’s natural for somebody to get into their head when they’re missing shots or not making the right plays. But I rely on my teammates and my coaches. I give Coach Holtmann, Coach (Jake) Diebler and the rest of the staff all the responsibility to chew me out if they feel like I’m not there mentally or if I’m not focusing. ... Having people on my team that can hold me accountable is really important for me.”

Scotty Middleton

It’s the time of year when freshmen have to start stepping up and making a bigger impact, and there’s no better candidate for that than Middleton. His 16.9 minutes per game are more than double that of the next-closest first-year, but his production in that space is still rather pedestrian with 4.7 points per game. High defensive activity and a 40% mark from three are both indicators he could break out at some point, however.

Three notable Nittany Lions

Kanye Clary

Projected Starting Lineup
No. Player Position Height Weight 2023-24 Stats
0 Kanye Clary G 5-11 192 19.1 PPG, 2.7 APG
1 Ace Baldwin Jr. G 6-0 190 13.2 PPG, 2.9 SPG
3 Nick Kern Jr. G 6-6 200 7.6 PPG, 4.4 RPG
24 Zach Hicks F 6-8 200 6.4 PPG, 3.1 RPG
22 Qudus Wahab C 6-11 245 9.2 PPG, 7.9 RPG

Clary has emerged as one of the Big Ten’s best guards this season, racking up 19.1 points per game, fourth-most in the conference. He does it at a rather efficient 48.5% clip from the field as well, going 36.8% from three. He led the charge for Penn State the first time out against Ohio State with 19 points.

Ace Baldwin Jr.

Forget about assist-to-turnover margin, Clary’s backcourt mate has a positive steal-to-turnover margin with a conference-leading 2.9 swipes per game – third in all of D-1 college basketball – against 2.2 turnovers per contest. In addition to being second on Penn State’s roster in points per game (13.2), he’s its leading dime-gatherer as well with 4.9 assists per contest. 

“They’re still really driven by their dynamic backcourt,” Holtmann said. “Everybody plays through those guys. They’re outstanding, those two guards, Baldwin and Clary.”

Qudus Wahab

Penn State’s 6-11 center takes care of much of the team’s dirty work down low, posting a team-high 7.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. He’s also an efficient scoring option, shooting a team-high 65.6% from the field to post 9.2 points per contest.

How it plays out

Line: Ohio State -10, O/U 150.5

I know much of the fanbase is low on this team right now. With how the past few seasons have played out, it’s probably warranted. However, I think this year’s bunch has the player leadership to respond to this skid and is an overall better group than what Penn State has. It might be a weird game, I expect a close game – but I see the Buckeyes winning the game.

If they don’t, I think it’s safe to say that their season will officially be spiraling.

Prediction: Ohio State 72, Penn State 68

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