Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
There isn't much reason to think the struggling Nittany Lions will be much of a match for Ohio State, but that's why they play the games.
Nobody but perhaps the most ardent Penn State supporters expected the Nittany Lions to contend for a Big Ten title this season, but that isn't to say this team was supposed to be bad. Penn State could still lay claim to one of the best players in perhaps the best conference in the country, in guard Tim Frazier, who was named preseason first team All Big Ten at Big Ten Media Day. Led by his prolific scoring ability, and some hot supporting guard play, Penn State figured to, at the very least, be a tough out throughout the season, and hoped to pick up enough scalps in league play to earn an NIT berth.
At the start of the year that all seemed possible. Then Frazier was lost to a season ending injury, and predictably, everything fell apart for Penn State.
Ohio State fans can sympathize with being overly reliant on one scorer, but even the Buckeyes boast a stronger supporting cast behind Deshaun Thomas. After losing Frazier, Penn State was blown out by Akron and La Salle, and have lost soundly in nearly every Big Ten game they've played. They haven't played only the league leaders (or Legends, AMIRITE?), as their slate includes a blowout home loss to Northwestern, and an embarrassing home loss to woeful Nebraska, where they missed approximately 412 free throws in the waning moments of the game. There is little in the resume of the Nittany Lions to suggest this is going to be a competitive game.
If it is, it will require a huge game from Penn State's best healthy player, D.J Newbill. The 6-4 sophomore guard leads the team in scoring at 15.5 ppg, is second in rebounding at 6.0 a game, and leads the team in assists at 3.9. If something good is happening on the court for Penn State, chances are, Newbill is involved. Newbill is able to score consistently despite having terrible range (he hasn't hit a three pointer since December 29th), thanks to his ability to get to the free throw line. Big Ten defenses have been able to force him to be inefficient shooting the ball, and prone to turnovers (14 combined in his last two games), so Aaron Craft is probably licking his chops at the prospect of padding his already gaudy steals numbers.
Joining Newbill in the backcourt is Penn State's other prolific scoring option, Jermaine Marshall. The 6-4 Marshall averages 15 points a game, and adds another 4.6 rebounds. He's a slightly better three point shooter than Newbil, but at only 31%, Ohio State will probably not be horrified if he gets a few looks from deep. Marshall is a bit of a volume shooter and has been prone to foul trouble recently. Since the Lions have paper-thin depth, having Marshall miss any amount of time due to fouls could be catastrophic to the Nittany Lion's efforts to score enough points. Marshall did drop 29 on Michigan State and 19 on Wisconsin, so he'll probably find a way to get his.
They are joined in the backcourt rotation by senior Nick Colella (3.6 ppg) who is mostly an offensive non-factor, but may shoot a few threes.
The frontcourt is a work in progress for Penn State. The scoring in this unit is paced by sophomore Ross Travis, who adds 7.1 points and rebounds per game. The 6-6 forward has struggled to shoot well from the field (only 36% shooter, 60% from the line), and is too small to be a shot blocker, but he's done a decent job as a rebounder. He is capable of keeping a defense honest, but probably not somebody you want to shoot more than seven times a game.
Travis is joined by freshman Brandon Taylor (6-7, 6.4 ppg 3.8 rpg). Taylor has a little bit of range for a bigger guy (34% from three) and isn't afraid to shoot from long range. Like most of the Nittany Lions, he hasn't been very efficient this year, especially lately, as he's shot worse than 30% in 4 of his last 5 games, with the exception coming against Nebraska. Serbian junior Sasa Borovnjak rounds out the rotation. Borovnjak is also not a primary offensive focus, but does shoot more efficiently than the other two forwards.
There just isn't very much that Penn State does well as a team right now. They're 296th in the country in points per game at 61.5, and they already have five Big Ten games where they haven't broken the 55 point barrier. They shoot under 40% as a team, and they're nearly dead last in the country at 9.1 assists per game (343rd). They aren't a strong enough defensive team to lock down a squad and hope to win a game in the 50s (like Ohio State is), so if Marshall and Newbill aren't on fire, it is difficult to imagine how they could possibly score enough points to hang with Ohio State. Actually, if they can't beat Purdue on February 5th, Penn State probably doesn't win a home game the rest of the year.
Holy Diver. Aaron Craft, Shannon Scott, and company should be able to lock Marshall and Newbill down, forcing turnovers and multiple missed shots to allow Ohio State to get on the break and get easier baskets to mask their jump shooting foes. Deshaun Thomas should get close to 20 points again, we'll get another opportunity to see if Ross, Thompson and Williams can play consistently, which will be needed in the games ahead. Even if Williams makes us want to rip our hair out again, the Buckeyes should roll easily, 74-51.