Talk around Columbus on Tuesday was very focused on a single fact: the Buckeyes got swept last season by Penn State. Though the Nittany Lions reside near the cellar of the Big Ten, Ohio State is fixated on revenge tonight on their home court.
"They beat us twice last year and we hadn't lost to them before that," head coach Thad Matta said. "Our guys are very aware."
Senior captain Shannon Scott, who averaged just 4.5 points and 3.5 assists in the two losses a year ago, made that awareness apparent.
"We remember last year they swept us," Scott said. "They stormed the court on us last year after they beat us at their place. We're going to worry about this game now."
Ohio State is fresh off a 79-60 drubbing of Rutgers on Sunday evening, and is looking for some momentum ahead of a big trip to East Lansing to take on Michigan State on Saturday. The game was chock full of highlights for the scarlet and gray, including two ridiculous Sam Thompson dunks off inbounds lob passes and the kind of hustle and passion plays by Jae'Sean Tate that have turned the freshman into a fan favorite.
But the player of the game, as has become routine this season, was D'Angelo Russell. Scoring 23 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, and dishing 11 assists, the freshman phenom notched the first triple-double by a first-year player in program history, and just the fourth overall. The Louisville native is flying up draft boards and making the debates regarding Big Ten Player of the Year, National Freshman of the Year, and National Player of the Year more interesting.
Russell recognizes how special this season is becoming for himself, but is also staying grounded and team-oriented.
"Personally, I think its scary for my opponents because I get better every game," Russell said on Tuesday. "My teammates make it easy for me to stay focused. I just keep sticking to the same routine and keep focusing on our goals."
Those goals include making the Big Ten title more than just a one team race, and if the Buckeyes are to make a run at Wisconsin, they need to start a big winning streak. Coming off the win in Piscataway, that streak can get started Wednesday night at Value City Arena against the Nittany Lions.
Numbers to know:
This is the number of points that freshman Keita Bates-Diop had scored in Ohio State's first ten conference games. With second-leading scorer Marc Loving suspended, the Buckeyes have extra minutes to be seized, and need scoring punch off the bench. Entering the Rutgers game, Matta believed Bates-Diop could be that player.
"I've been on Keita all year to be more aggressive," Matta said. "I want him to shoot the basketball. He's a shooter. I brought him here to shoot, and I think sometimes he's out there trying to sort of feel his way. We need him to be a little bit more aggressive in terms of his approach."
That confidence was rewarded on Sunday, when KBD put up 14 points on 4-7 shooting, including 3-4 from three-point range, and added 9 rebounds. With Loving still not available against Penn State, the former four-star recruit should see plenty of opportunities to build off his best game of the season.
The leading scorer in the Big Ten doesn't come from a glamour program like Wisconsin or Michigan State. He can be found in Happy Valley in senior D.J. Newbill. After averaging just under 18 a game a season ago while playing second fiddle to Tim Frazier, the Philadelphia native is putting together a memorable final season for the Nittany Lions.
"What a great player," Matta said. "A guy who scores so many different ways. He's very creative on how he gets his points."
Newbill will undoubtedly be the focal point of Penn State's offense, and every Buckeye on the floor will need to know where he is on the court to keep him in check.
Believe it or not, Ohio State still sits third in the country in offensive field goal percentage, hitting 50.3 percent of their shots. While the Buckeyes' consistency shooting the ball since Big Ten play has seemed to be spotty, the team has maintained solid production. Young guys playing beyond their years like Russell (47.8 percent) and Tate (58.3 percent), and a quietly solid senior season from Amir Williams (70.4 percent), have helped Ohio State to a higher field goal percentage than the conference frontrunning Badgers.
Cast of characters:
Since Matta juggled his lineup, moving Tate and Anthony Lee into the starting lineup, the increase in energy at the outset of games has been palpable. The Pickerington native is averaging 16 points and 6.3 boards in the past four games, and his hustle and heart have been contagious for a team that has been criticized for sleepwalking. As valuable as Russell has been as a newcomer for his scoring and passing, Tate is right there with him for the things you can't quantify.
Despite his residency in the Sportscenter Top 10, most causal observers would look at Thompson's numbers as a senior and say he has greatly underachieved. Averaging a hair under 10 points and 4 boards a game, the scarlet and gray skywalker has not developed into the consistent offensive option many had hoped. But make no mistake, Thompson is invaluable to this team, both as a leader and a defender. The Chicago product routinely defends the opposition's best scorer, and will be expected to check Newbill for a good stretch on Wednesday night.
Yes, he's the Big Ten's leading scorer. But Newbill means so much more to the Nittany Lions as a leader. In addition to points, he leads the team in assists (3.1 per game) and steals (1.4 per game), and is third in rebounding (4.9 per game). A no-brainer for the All-Big Ten first team, Newbill has scored over 1,600 points in his career already, and he's not done yet.
The Nittany Lions' top freshman, Garner put up double-figures in his first five collegiate games, but has lacked consistency throughout the season ever since. Averaging just a shade under 9 points a game since conference play began, the Chester, Pennsylvania native has shown flashes of being able to be the complementary scorer Penn State has needed so badly next to Newbill. His season high of 14 points has been reached twice, in tough losses to Indiana and Illinois. For the season, Garner is third on the team in the scoring and second in assists and steals.
Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET. The game will be televised on the Big Ten Network.