Coming off of a couple confidence inspiring wins, the Ohio State Buckeyes find themselves back in the AP top 25. The Buckeyes recently prevailed over both Nebraska and Purdue. These two wins seem to have gone a long way in building up this team's confidence as they approach the Big Ten Tournament. The team's body language and excitement toward the end of the Purdue game in particular indicates that this team is galvanizing down the short stretch towards post season play.
Penn State welcomes Ohio State into the Bryce Jordan Center on a bit of a skid. Despite strong play from Senior D.J. Newbill, the Nittany Lions have dropped 7 of their last 8 games and are a meager 3-13 in the Big Ten. Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, the 2014 season has been another season of disappointment and cellar dwelling in the Big Ten.
However, despite all of this, the Buckeyes should not sleepwalk through this upcoming game. Just a year ago this Penn State team went 2-0 against the Buckeyes. A loss to Penn State may not sink the Buckeyes' NCAA Tournament hopes, but it would certainly affect seeding and cast doubt on the team's legitimacy.
In Ohio State's latest matchup with Purdue, the Buckeyes were able to garner a quality win at home that seems to have all but punched their ticket to the big dance. Aside from the typically inspired play By D'Angelo Russell, Amir Williams surprisingly stepped up and made a noticeable impact on the game. Williams notched 6 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 blocks and played with force inside for what seems like the first time all season.
Hopefully Williams can build off of this performance and become a difference maker down the stretch. This proposed development should be looked at with an exceedingly skeptical eye, but in the immortal words of J.P. from the 1994 feel-good sports film Angels in the Outfield: "It could happen."
Numbers to know:
Most self proclaimed bracketologists currently have the Buckeyes somewhere between a 7 seed and a 9 seed. Ohio State has the opportunity to improve their future seeding by extending their current winning streak and making some noise in the Big Ten Tournament. On the flip side, a loss to Penn State now could significantly impact the Buckeyes' tournament seeding and establish a difficult road ahead. Avoiding an 8 or 9 seed (or anything below that) would go a long way for the Buckeyes to make a run in the tournament. If the Buckeye are saddled with an 8 or 9 seed, provided they win their initial matchup, they would square off with the 1 seed in their region in the second round. That could mean a team like Kentucky or Duke standing in the Buckeyes path early on. That is far from a desirable result that early in the tournament.
Penn State's D.J. Newbill is currently averaging 20.4 points per game. As of today that is good for 8th best among all active NCAA Men's basketball players. If Penn State is going to upset the Buckeyes it will likely be on the back of a Superman performance from Newbill. Newbill has a season high of 37 points against Purdue earlier in the season, so he is capable filling it up and taking over a game. The Buckeye guards will be tasked defensively with stopping Newbill tonight. If they can halt Newbill and limit him offensively, the Penn State's chances of success dramatically plummet.
The top 4 teams in the Big Ten get a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament. This means that the top 4 seeds will only have to win 2 games to make it to the Big Ten Championship game. The Buckeyes are currently tied for the 4th spot with Michigan State and Iowa. With the monster matchup at the end of the regular season with powerhouse Wisconsin ahead, this game against Penn State is increasingly important to give the Buckeyes a chance at hanging on to a top 4 spot. In order to remain in the top 4, avoid an 8 or 9 seed, and preserve their tournament birth legitimacy, the Buckeyes need to go into Bryce Jordan and walk out with a win.
Cast of characters:
D'Angelo Russell is a great college basketball player. That assessment is beyond reproach at this point. Jaquan Lyle cryptic posts aside, Russell is almost certainly not coming back. Thus, these are shaping up to be the last few games Buckeye faithful will be able to enjoy his silky abilities. With that in mind, fully expect Russell to purely ball out over the remaining stretch of games, particularly against a team like Penn State. Russell has carried this team offensively and this game should not be any different. Russell's super human skill set, in partnership with the rest of the team not shooting themselves in the foot, should be enough to push the Buckeyes past the Nittany Lions tonight.
Jae'Sean Tate is the natural opposite to D'Angelo Russell in certain respects. Both are great players and lead the Buckeyes on both ends of the floor. However, while Russell is almost certainly on his way to the NBA after this season, Tate should be in the Scarlet and Gray for many years to come. Buckeye fans should be elated by that fact. When the dust settles, Tate could very well end up being one of the best Buckeyes in a while and the class of the Big Ten. Russell and Tate paired together for this final stretch will be the key to the Buckeyes' success. As these two go, so goes this entire team. Provided Tate and Russell are both clicking, the Nittany Lions should be laid to rest early on in the game.
Newbill, as previously mentioned, is the best the Nittany Lions have to offer. He leads his team in almost every major statistical category and is a fantastic offensive player. He was a terror against the Buckeyes last year in Penn State's two vitories over the Buckeyes. However, in the first matchup with Penn State this year, Newbill was generally held in check. This resulted in a 20 point victory over the Nittany Lions and a bit of an exorcism regarding last year's ghosts. If the Buckeyes are able to limit Newbill like they did in the first matchup, Penn State will struggle significantly and the Buckeyes will charge ahead with a win. To underscore Newbill's primacy in the Penn State offense, he averages about 20 points per game. The next highest for the Nittany Lions doesn't even amount to half of Newbill's productivity. The next guy up is Brandon Taylor with 9.3 points per game.
Taylor is another upperclassman leader for the Nittany Lions. He is a high energy player that helps to compliment Newbill on the offensive end. Sam "Slam" Thompson will likely draw this assignment has Taylor typically lines up in either the 3 or the 4 spot for Penn State. Frankly, it is unlikely Taylor has any real impact on this game that moved the needle for Penn State. Penn State's entire hope for success tonight rests with Newbill. If the Buckeyes shut down Newbill, Taylor's impact will not matter.