Three weeks ago, a palatable sense of optimism was creeping back into Ohio State's season. The Buckeyes had just knocked off Northwestern, on the road, to win their seventh game in a row. The string from early season upsets and missed opportunities had started to fade a bit, and Ohio State's computer profile had begun to rehabilitate. Sure, their Big Ten victories were against struggling Illinois and Minnesota teams, but if Ohio State could just hang around over the next few games, their NCAA hopes were suddenly looking alive again.
The last few weeks have not been kind to that sense of optimism. The Buckeyes have lost three of their last four games, with their only victory a pounding over hapless Rutgers, and even then, the Scarlet Knights were in the game until the second half. Perhaps most disheartening was the fact that the Buckeyes were absolutely murdered by two of those opponents, in road trips to Indiana and Maryland.
Ohio State dropped their most recent game at Purdue to finish off their road trip, but at least Ohio State was competitive this time, giving the Boilermakers all they could handle until the last few minutes of the game. Was that the sign that Ohio State had finally turned the corner, and is ready to spring some upsets over the last month or so of Big Ten play, or was it just an anomaly?
We'll get a little bit of an idea tonight, as Ohio State heads home to take on the struggling Penn State Nittany Lions. If Ohio State has any tiny illusions about playing in the NCAA Tournament, this game is a must win (as are most of the rest in the regular season), but dropping games like this one could make even the NIT a potential dicey proposition.
This game kicks off a stretch of several winnable games for Ohio State. Can they start a second profile rehabilitation? We find out tonight.
Numbers to know
That's Ohio State's current RPI, per ESPN. Yes, that's a flawed metric, and yes, there's still lots of basketball to played in this regular season, but that's not a particularly #nice metric at all, sits outside of what would historically be considered good enough to be on the right side of the bubble. Kenpom is even harsher on Ohio State, ranking them 78th at the moment. There are still opportunities on the schedule for Ohio State to rehabilitate that number and get back into the conversation, but they cannot afford any bad losses. And that would include Penn State.
That's the number of assists per game Penn State averages, which is a woeful 346th in the country (there are 351 teams in D1 basketball). The Nittany Lions don't have a single player averaging three dimes a game (Shep Garner is closest, with 2.9), and as a team, they average more turnovers than assists. Not sharing the basketball effectively is a great way to force yourselves into inefficient shots and a stagnant offense. The Buckeyes aren't exactly worldbeaters when it comes to taking care of and sharing the basketball, but if they press Penn State a little bit, the odds are good that they can keep them out of an effective offensive flow.
That's Penn State's Kenpom ranking. Only Minnesota (200) and Rutgers (278...which...yikes) are worse in the Big Ten. That 135 is still relatively lousy for a power conference program, which just goes to underscore how Ohio State should not lose this game. Granted, bad Penn State teams have still been able to upset Ohio State in recent memory, but the Buckeyes don't have any cushion left to absorb an off night against an inferior opponent, and especially not at home. Kenpom predicts a 71-63 Buckeye victory, and gives Ohio State a 79% chance of winning the game.
Cast of characters
Harris had seen his minutes fluctuate a little bit over the course of the season, but his inspired performance against Purdue might force Thad Matta to find a few more minutes for him later this season. Harris played his best game, scoring a career high 11 points in only 12 minutes of action against the Boilermakers, while also adding two boards and a steal. Harris is typically the fasted guy on the court, and gives Ohio State a different look compared to when JaQuan Lyle is at point guard. Could the Buckeyes look to find other ways to let Lyle play off the ball and give Harris more burn? You can never have too many quality ballhandlers, after all.
Another player whose place in the rotation seemed a little unclear earlier in the season, Williams has been absolutely on fire late, and keeping him off the court seems harder and harder. Williams has hit double digits in scoring for three of his last five games, including 14 against Purdue, when he went 4-5 from downtown. Williams has now shot 50% or better from downtown in every game for a month, a welcome sign seeing as other scoring options have struggled a little bit. Williams should be able to find ways to get his shot off against Penn State, and may have himself another very strong night.
As a team, Penn State has struggled this season, but Taylor has still played pretty well. The 6-8 senior big man has hit double figures in every game but one this year, when he scored nine. He's leading Penn State with 16.2 a game, and can hurt you from downtown, from inside, or at the free throw line. Penn State doesn't shoot three pointers especially well as a team, but Taylor is somebody Ohio State will need to account for, especially because his size can make disrupting his shot difficult. He's unquestionably one of Penn State's go-to players, and if he struggles, it's hard to see how the Nittany Lions spring the road upset.
Shep is going to play a lot of minutes for Penn State (he averages over 34 a game), and will also be crucial for their upset hopes. Garner is capable of going off, as he dropped 30 on Boston College and has hit 20 points on three other occasions this season, and he's going to try and get to the basket and to the free throw line, which could be an issue for Ohio State's proclivity to foul while defending. Ohio State may be able to force Garner into inefficiency from the floor, but he's capable of having big games if you let him.
How to watch
Game time: 7:00 p.m. ET
Radio: WBNS-FM 97.1