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Ohio State men’s basketball vs Penn State: Game preview and prediction

It’s do-or-die time for the Buckeyes, who are hovering between good and great. This week’s games should provide some clarity.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Ohio State Columbus Dispatch-USA TODAY NETWORK

After losing an absolute heartbreaker at home against Purdue last week, things were trending downward for the Buckeyes with their next game coming on the road against then-No. 10 Wisconsin. The Badgers have depth, length, and a plethora of guys who can knock em’ down from beyond the arc.

However, Ohio State, sporting their new charcoal-gray uniforms, took it right to the Badgers. They jumped out to an early 11-3 lead and never looked back, winning the wire-to-wire contest, 74-62. Ohio State led by as many as 13 points and never trailed during the game. Sophomore big man/center/do-it-all guy E.J. Liddell had another impressive performance, as he scored 20 points and pulled down seven rebounds in 32 minutes.

The only other Buckeye to score in double digits was Seth Towns (10 points), but Ohio State did have five other players score at least eight points (CJ Walker, Kyle Young, Justice Sueing, Justin Ahrens, and Duane Washington Jr.). As a team, Ohio State shot 50.9% from the floor overall— which was their second-best mark of the season — and 31.3% from three-point range.

With the win, Ohio State (12-4, 6-4) took a step in the right direction in the B1G standings, as they’re now tied with Purdue for fifth-place. The top four seeds in the Big Ten Tournament get the coveted double-bye, and it seems Ohio State is going to be right in the mix for that by the time the conference tournament rolls around. The last time Ohio State earned a double-bye in the B1G Tournament was during the 2012-2013 season, when they went 13-5 under Thad Matta and finished runner-up to Indiana.

The Buckeyes may not just be seeking a double-bye, either. With two seemingly winnable games this week at home against Penn State (5-6, 2-5) and Michigan State (8-4, 2-4), Chris Holtmann’s gang could march into Iowa City on Feb. 4 with an 8-4 record in conference play if they win both. The No. 7 Hawkeyes (12-3, 6-2) may be the best team in the conference, and if Ohio State knocks them off on the road, the Buckeyes would be right in the thick of the conference title race.

…..but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.


Preview

Winners of four of their last five games, Ohio State will need to knock off a Penn State team that’s coming off back-to-back victories against Rutgers and Northwestern. The Nittany Lions started 0-3 in conference play before going on pause due to positive COVID cases within their program, and have gone 2-2 since their return. KenPom loves Penn State, ranking them No. 46 despite their sub-.500 record (the only team inside the top-50 with a record below .500). A big reason for their generous KenPom ranking is their 29th-rated offense.

Junior guard Myreon Jones is their go-to guy, averaging 15.9 points per game and shooting north of 40% from three-point land. In four games since Penn State returned from their COVID-pause, he’s averaging 18.8 points per contest and has knocked down 13-of-28 three-point tries. Look for Sueing or Washington Jr. to match up with Penn State’s budding star.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Aside from Jones, Penn State returns his backcourt mate Izaiah Brockington (14.7 PTS, 4.8 REB) and sophomore wing Seth Lundy (12.7 PTS, 4.5 REB). Binghamton transfer Sam Sessoms — also a guard — is averaging just over 10 points per game as well, and is shooting 40% from beyond the arc.

While the Nittany Lions do not lack scoring options, they’re far from an efficient offense. Chris Holtmann noted during his Tuesday press conference that one of the keys to beating Penn State will be keeping them off the offensive glass, as they lead the B1G in that category with with 13.3 offensive rebounds per game. The Nittany Lions are not a team that bullies opponents with length or size. Instead, they out-hustle and out-work opposing teams on the boards, giving themselves additional chances for their quartet of double-digit scorers. This helps overshadow their team field goal percentage of 42.8%, which is 12th in the conference, ahead of only Nebraska and Minnesota.

On the Ohio State side of things, the Buckeyes’ offense looked much smoother with Walker back running the show. The senior point guard came off the bench, but still played 24 minutes as he continues to recover from torn ligaments in his right, non-shooting hand. On Tuesday afternoon, Holtmann reminded everyone that Walker’s hand is not completely healed, and — like several of his teammates — his minutes will depend on how he feels on any given day.

Holtmann also noted that Ohio State continued to run a fairly efficient offense even with Walker absent, so it would be a balancing act for him to work Walker in where needed but not oversaturate Ohio State’s rotations with him and risk messing up what’s already working. Additionally, he does not want Walker to put too much stress on his hand while he continues to recover. The Buckeyes’ point guard may not play 30 minutes again until the NCAA Tournament, if I had to guess.

A big key for Ohio State on Wednesday evening will be shot selection, and it’ll be interesting to see if they blast themselves out of a cannon early like they did against Purdue when they shot 22 first-half three-pointers, or if they go with the more level-headed approach they used against Wisconsin, using off-ball screens to set up drives to the basket and sprinkling in some triples when the opportunity arises. The Buckeyes shoot 34.5% from distance — the fourth-worst in the Big Ten — so they simply cannot depend on consistent perimeter shooting from anyone other than Justin Ahrens (50.7% 3PT) and Washington Jr. (38.5% 3PT).

Ohio State’s recipe for success on the defensive end against Wisconsin was to double team — and sometimes even triple team — the post on every look the Badgers got in the paint. This would force a kick-out to the perimeter, and the Buckeyes’ had to trust their athleticism and quickness to retreat to the three-point line and contest outside. Simply put: Ohio State was not going to allow Wisconsin to bully them down low like Purdue did. And it worked, as Ohio State outscored Wisconsin in the paint 24-22, and held the Badgers to just 5-of-16 from three-point land as well.


Prediction

As noted in the very beginning, Ohio State cannot afford to cough up either of this week’s home games if they want to stay within shouting distance of the top of the conference. The Nittany Lions are on the upswing, and with 13 conference games remaining they’ll have ample opportunities to get themselves back on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

However, Penn State is the type of team the Buckeyes must beat every single time this season (along with Maryland and Nebraska) if they want to make the leap from good to great. OSU matches up well with Penn State, as their combo of Young and Liddell should be more than able to contain PSU’s 6-foot-9 center John Harrar.

I expect Sueing to have a breakout game on the defensive side of the ball guarding Myreon Jones, but it is Penn State’s other guards — Brockington and Sessoms — that could be the difference maker in this game. Sessoms in particular could be due for a breakout game, as he’s averaged just six points per contest since Penn State returned from their COVID pause. The Binghamton transfer averaged 19.4 points per game last season for the Bearcats in the America East conference.

In the end, I think the Buckeyes are the better team in nearly every facet of the game. Penn State has been dominant on the offensive glass, but with Holtmann speaking on that point multiple times during his press conference, he obviously has locked in on that particular area and should have his men ready to clean up the boards on Wednesday evening.

ESPN BPI: Ohio State 75.4%
7:00 PM ET
TV: BTN

LGHL Score Prediction: 84-70 Ohio State