If Ohio State has any designs on earning a bid to their eighth straight NCAA Tournament, they will likely have to take home the Big Ten Tournament title this weekend in Indianapolis. The journey for the Buckeyes will start tonight when they take on Penn State. In their only meeting this year with the Nittany Lions, Ohio State had little trouble dispatching Penn State in Columbus in late January, winning 66-46. The Buckeyes used 22 points from Keita Bates-Diop in the victory, combined with a stifling perimeter defense, which saw Penn State shoot just 16% from three-point range.
The winner of tonight's game will move on to face Michigan State tomorrow night in the quarterfinals. The Buckeyes have become very familiar with the Spartans over the past couple weeks. Ohio State has won five of their last seven games, but both of those losses during that stretch came to Michigan State. The Buckeyes closed out the regular season with a 91-76 loss to the Spartans in East Lansing on Saturday afternoon, which was just the second time Ohio State has lost their regular season finale under Thad Matta.
Ohio State had one of their best offensive games of the season on Saturday, hitting a season-high 11 three-pointers, but it still wasn't enough against an experienced Michigan State attack that shot 67% from the field. The meeting with Michigan State marked the seventh time this year that Ohio State has taken on a team ranked in the AP Top 10.
It wasn't quite like last season when the Buckeyes had D'Angelo Russell taking home numerous accolades as the season drew to a close, but three Ohio State players were honored on Monday night for the performance throughout the season. Marc Loving, Keita Bates-Diop, and Jae'Sean Tate were all named honorable mention All-Big Ten by both the coaches and the media.
Ohio State won't have the services of Tate the rest of the season due to a shoulder injury, so they'll need Loving and Bates-Diop to step up. If the Buckeyes hope to make some noise in the Big Ten Tournament, they'll need Bates-Diop to play more like he did in the Iowa game, where he scored 19 points as Ohio State was able to upset the Hawkeyes. At least the Buckeyes have been getting solid contributions off the bench from Kam Williams lately. Not only did Williams score 11 points in the win over Iowa, but he scored 15 of Ohio State's 17 bench points on Saturday in the loss to Michigan State, tying his season-high by hitting five three-pointers.
Ohio State will now take on a Penn State team who they've gotten the better of the majority of the time since Thad Matta took over as head coach in Columbus. Under Matta, Ohio State is 20-2 against Penn State, with the only two losses coming in 2014. The success Matta and the Buckeyes have had against the Nittany Lions has stretched into the Big Ten Tournament, with Matta's Ohio State teams holding a 3-0 record against Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament. The last time these two teams met in the Big Ten Tournament came back in 2011, where the Buckeyes earned a 71-60 win over the Nittany Lions in the championship game in Indianapolis.
Even though Penn State struggled during the early portion of their Big Ten schedule, stumbling out of the gates to a 2-8 record in their first 10 games, the Nittany Lions have found their stride of late, winning five of their last eight Big Ten games. A big reason for their recent success has been the return of Josh Reaves, who missed six games earlier in the year due to mono. During the six games Reaves missed, Penn State was just 1-5. Since Reaves has returned, Penn State has gone 5-3, and Reaves scored a career-high 13 points in the regular season finale against Illinois.
Reaves wasn't the only Penn State player to star in the regular season finale against Illinois, as both Brandon Taylor and Shep Garner gave the Nittany Lions big performances in the hard-fought victory. Taylor scored 21 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, while Garner scored a team-high 22 points. The victory meant that Penn State would finish the regular season with a record above .500 for the second straight season, something they haven't done in two straight years since 1994-95 and 1995-96. The seven Big Ten wins also their most successful conference record since they earned nine wins in 2010-11, and is also the most under head coach Patrick Chambers.
Numbers to know
Since Thad Matta took over at Ohio State, the Buckeyes have 22 wins in the Big Ten Tournament, which is the most by a Big Ten team during that span. Over the same time period, Michigan State has the second-most Big Ten Tournament wins with 16. Ohio State has played in 29 Big Ten Tournament games under Matta, which is also the most among Big Ten teams during that span.
Ohio State is 19-2 as the higher seed in the Big Ten Tournament. The last time Ohio State lost a Big Ten Tournament game when they were the higher seed was in 2006 Big Ten Tournament Final when as they were the top seed and lost to Iowa, who was the second seed. The only other time Ohio State lost in the Big Ten Tournament as the higher seed came in 2000, when the Buckeyes were again the top seed, and lost to Penn State.
This year Penn State has been strong in close games, as they have posted a 12-4 record in games decided by nine points or less. Half of those 12 wins have come in Big Ten play, where the Nittany Lions have posted a 6-3 record in games decided by nine points or less. Ohio State hasn't had quite as much success in tight games, posting a 7-5 record in games decided by nine points or less. The Buckeyes have been better in close games of late though, posting a 5-1 record in Big Ten play in games decided by nine points or less.
Cast of characters
After going through a bit of a midseason slump, Loving has found his scoring stroke again, hitting double figures in the scoring column in five straight games. In Saturday's loss to Michigan State, Loving eclipsed 400 points on the season early in the game, and wound up scoring 21 points in the losing effort. Loving is Ohio State's leading scorer on the season, averaging 13.5 points per game.
If Ohio State is able to win a couple of games in Indianapolis, Lyle has a chance to crack the Top 10 on Ohio State's freshman scoring list. Currently Lyle has scored 304 points during his first season for the Buckeyes, which sits just over 30 points behind Clark Kellogg, who scored 335 points for the Buckeyes in his freshman year in Columbus in 1990. Lyle has also dished out 133 assists this year, which ranks fifth in the country among freshmen.
The senior forward has been Penn State's best player this season, averaging 16.3 points per game. The 21 points and 11 rebounds Taylor recorded against Illinois in Penn State's regular season finale marked the eighth double-double Taylor has recorded this season. The Buckeyes were able to hold Taylor in check in the first meeting this year between the schools, with Taylor scoring just 11 points in the loss.
Garner has been a nice compliment to Taylor, and ranks second in scoring for the Nittany Lions, averaging 14.5 points per game. The sophomore guard scored a team-high 22 points in the win over Illinois, and now has nine games this year in which he has scored 20 points or more. Garner has done some of his best work as the regular season came to a close, scoring 20 points or more in four of the last five games. Garner did have his troubles earlier in the year against Ohio State though, hitting just one of the nine shots he attempted.
How to watch
Game time: 6:30 p.m. ET
Radio: WBNS-FM 97.1