The No. 16 Ohio State men’s basketball team started off the season hot, but January is proving to be a grind as the Buckeyes get deeper into conference play. The Buckeyes are losers of two of the last three, most recently falling to No. 13 Wisconsin in Madison — a team the Buckeyes had beat at home earlier.
However, despite the January slump, there have been positive signs of improvement, like outstanding play from true freshman Malaki Branham, plus the fact the Buckeyes have, for the most part, been back to full strength and a regular schedule after COVID led to several cancelled games in December. (From a conditioning perspective, the Buckeyes didn’t play a game between Dec. 11 and Jan. 2.)
Now, the Buckeyes return home to lick their wounds after their loss as they prepare to face Penn State for the second time this basketball season.
The Buckeyes didn’t play poorly per say against Wisconsin. The Badgers were surging, winners of five-straight, and frankly were hot at home in a game where they were never behind. On the court, the difference came on the two teams’ three-point shooting performance, with Ohio State ice cold in the first half (0-for-7) while Wisconsin connected on 7-of-13. That difference gave Wisconsin an insurmountable halftime advantage.
It wasn’t all bad. The Buckeyes shot 50% from the field, matched Wisconsin on rebounds (33-all) and had just 11 turnovers. Junior forward EJ Liddell led the Buckeyes in scoring with 18 points on the night. Four other Buckeyes — Zed Key, Malaki Branham, Jamari Wheeler and Kyle Young — also scored in double figures.
In many ways, the Buckeyes are a rapidly improving team that’s been able to rely on young talent more and more as the season has progressed. Now, they’ll need to bring the pieces together to win games in an always challenging Big Ten.
Six games into Big Ten play, Ohio State’s balance of scoring has shifted away from EJ Liddell as the lineup has found much more balance. This evolved team will have another crack at a Penn State team they’ve already beat once this season.
The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, are coming off a 66-49 win over Rutgers at home. Penn State put together a highly balanced performance against the Scarlet Knights, with four players scoring in double figures in a game that was never in doubt.
Senior guard Sam Sessoms led the Nittany Lions with 17 points off the bench. Senior forward John Harrar wasn’t far behind, with 16 points. Senior point guard Jalen Pickett (15) and junior forward Seth Lundy (10) were also in double figures on the day. The Nittany Lions shot 43% from the field and 33% from three-point range. Penn State outrebounded the Scarlet Knights 41 to 33, and had 13 turnovers to Rutgers’ 15.
Penn State’s season has been impacted by the pandemic, with three games in December being cancelled, but the Nittany Lions had a strong return to Big Ten play in January with wins over Indiana and Northwestern before the budding streak was snapped with a loss to No. 3 Purdue.
The Buckeyes already beat Penn State once this year 76-64 in Happy Valley in their conference opener in December. In that matchup, Kyle Young, coming off the bench, led the Buckeyes with 16 points on 4-for-4 shooting (and 4-of-4 free throws). EJ Liddell added 14. Ohio State shot a collective 51% from the field in that first game, and greater than 44% from range.
Point guard Jamari Wheeler, who transferred to Ohio State from Penn State, had nine points and eight assists in his first outing against his former team.
Penn State, meanwhile, shot 45% on the day, led by point guard Jalen Pickett’s 23 points. Penn State outrebounded Ohio State 29 to 28, but had 15 turnovers to the Buckeyes’ 13.
The big story of the first matchup was Ohio State’s three-point shooting. The Buckeyes were 7 of 16 from range in the first half alone which, just like it did for Wisconsin against Ohio State, gave the Buckeyes an insurmountable advantage.
Micah Shrewsberry is 8-6 in his first season as head coach of the Nittany Lions, including 3-3 in conference. Shrewsberry had previously been an assistant at Purdue, and is tasked with improving a Penn State basketball program that’s never won the Big Ten and, more generally, has been highly vanilla, making the NCAA tournament just twice this century (2001, 2011). As a fun fact, Penn State’s only conference title came in 1991 when the program was part of the Atlantic 10.
Despite coming off a loss, Ohio State certainly looks to be at an advantage over a team they’ve already beaten once. Last time out, the Buckeyes were down early against the Nittany Lions, but largely controlled things down the stretch en route to their 12-point victory.
The thing is, though, Penn State isn’t bad, and the win is by no means a given. In January, the Nittany Lions beat Indiana at home and Northwestern on the road, and lost to No. 3 Purdue by just seven points. Additionally, Penn State brought an experienced lineup into this season, with the Nittany Lions putting four seniors and a junior in the starting lineup.
Penn State also benefits from a new starter they didn’t have last time out against Ohio State. One big change in this second matchup is the addition of grad transfer Greg Lee, who joined the Nittany Lions in late December after transferring from Western Michigan and missing the start of the season with an unspecified injury. He’s averaging just under seven points and six rebounds per game. He led the Nittany Lions in rebounds against Rutgers with 12.
The recent slump the Buckeyes are experiencing is not entirely unexpected: Head coach Chris Holtmann missed Ohio State’s win against Northwestern. Against Wisconsin, the Buckeyes were without freshman guard Meechie Johnson Jr, who missed the game with a facial injury. Johnson had been averaging just under seven points per game on the season.
As alluded to previously, Ohio State is also benefiting from true freshman Malaki Branham, who has had an incredible January. After taking a minute to get his footing earlier this season, the true freshman shooting guard has been a monster on the court this month, headlined by his 35-point performance against Nebraska. Branham had 11 points against the Nittany Lions in December, but he’s been averaging nearly 21 in the last four games (yes, his total against the Huskers throws the average off slightly).
Especially given three-point shooting was the difference against Penn State the first time around (and was certainly a contributing factor in the Buckeyes’ loss to Wisconsin), getting on track in this area has to be a priority.
Most recently against Wisconsin, Liddell connected on two of his three attempts from range, and Justin Ahrens, who struggled against the Badgers with just five points on the day, had the final successful three-point shot on the day for the Buckeyes.
It’s an interesting conundrum, because three members of Ohio State’s starting lineup (Liddell, Ahrens, Branham) are shooting better than 37% from range. In other words, they should be able to get back on track.
The Buckeyes are 8.5-point favorites against the Nittany Lions, which reflects a narrower margin than Ohio State’s previous road win over Penn State. It feels reasonable given the challenges Ohio State has had finding a rhythm in January, but also like a solid win over an outmatched opponent.
While there’s a lot of basketball left to be played this season, Ohio State’s loss to Wisconsin puts the Buckeyes two games behind Illinois in the Big Ten standings. While the odds seem to be in the Buckeyes’ favor, they need to win the games they’re supposed to win down the stretch of conference play.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 86.4%
Time: 12 p.m. ET