After playing their last three games at home, Ohio State hits the road tonight for the first time since they played in the Emerald Coast Classic two weeks ago. The Buckeyes will head to State College to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions, who have bested Ohio State in each of the last two meetings between the schools. Following a loss to the Nittany Lions in the 2022 Big Ten Tournament, Penn State came to Columbus last year and beat Ohio State 75-71 in their only meeting during the 2022-23 season.
The Buckeyes head into tonight’s game riding a seven-game winning streak. The last time Ohio State was on the court they beat Miami (OH) 84-64 on Wednesday night. Roddy Gayle Jr. was one of six Buckeyes to reach double figures in scoring, netting a team-high 15 points against the RedHawks. Zed Key notched his second double-double of the season, finishing with 13 points and 10 rebounds, while Bruce Thornton added 14 points, and Jamison Battle followed up his performance against Minnesota with 13 points.
Tonight’s game against Penn State will be Ohio State’s second Big Ten game of the year. The Buckeyes won their conference opener on Sunday, beating Minnesota 84-74. Following tonight’s contest against the Nittany Lions, Ohio State will play their final three non-conference games of the season before hosting Rutgers a couple days into 2024. Next Saturday, Ohio State will take on UCLA in Atlanta as part of the CBS Sports Classic, followed by a game at home against New Orleans, and a neutral site game in Cleveland against West Virginia in the Legends of Basketball Classic.
On the other side, Penn State enters tonight’s game on a five-game losing streak after winning their first four games of the season. The latest setback for the Nittany Lions came in their first conference game of the season on Wednesday night when they lost 81-75 in overtime at Maryland. Kanye Clary scored a team-high 25 points in the loss, and is pacing the team in scoring this year, averaging 16.2 points per game.
One player for Ohio State that will be hoping for a big game tonight is Evan Mahaffey, who started his career at Penn State, playing in 34 games for the Nittany Lions as a freshman last year. Mahaffey hit the transfer portal after former Penn State head coach Micah Shrewsberry took the Notre Dame job. After scoring just 21 points in his first eight games as a Buckeye, Mahaffey had his best game in the scarlet and gray on Wednesday night, netting 10 points against Miami. The Cincinnati native will be hoping he can channel some of the same energy Jamison Battle had last week when the former Minnesota Golden Gopher took on his former team.
Last year Penn State was able to make the NCAA Tournament thanks to some outstanding play from Jalen Pickett, Seth Lundy, and a number of others. Following a win over Texas A&M in the first round of the tournament, the Nittany Lions pushed Texas to the limit before the Longhorns advanced with a 71-66 victory. Penn State finished the season with a 23-14 record, leading to Shrewsberry moving on to Notre Dame following two years in State College.
Replacing Shrewsberry is Mike Rhoades, who coached VCU for six seasons before taking the Penn State job. Rhoades compiled a 129-61 record while at the school, leading the Rams to the NCAA Tournament three times. Along with Rhoades, Penn State also brought in Ace Baldwin Jr. and Nick Kern Jr. from VCU. Baldwin is currently second on the team with 14.6 points per game, while Kern is averaging 6.8 points per game. Baldwin’s best performance of the season came against his old team during the ESPN Events Invitational when he scored 27 points in a 86-74 loss to VCU.
Baldwin and Kern weren’t the only additions during the offseason in the transfer portal by Penn State. The literal biggest addition for the Nittany Lions was 6’11” forward Qudus Wahab, who started his college career at Georgetown, spent a year at Maryland before transferring back to Georgetown prior to last season. Wahab is averaging nearly a double-double this year, scoring 10.4 points per game and pulling down 9.3 rebounds per game through the first nine games of the season. The Nittany Lions also brought in North Carolina transfers Puff Johnson and D’Marco Dunn.
An interesting matchup in tonight’s game will be between Wahab and Ohio State bigs Felix Okpara and Zed Key. While Key is coming off his second double-double of the season, Okpara has been one of the best shot blockers in the country so far this season. Okpara has now blocked at least one shot in 16 straight games dating back to last season, joining Ken Johnson, Greg Oden, and Dallas Lauderdale as Buckeyes to block at least one shot in 15 straight games since 2000. For the season Okpara has 22 blocks, which is more than half of the 40 swats Ohio State has totaled as a team.
Where Ohio State is going to have to be careful tonight is with their ball control and decision making since Penn State has been great this year at forcing their opponents into mistakes. The Nittany Lions are forcing 16.67 turnovers per game this year, which is tops in the Big Ten and ranks 19th in the country. So far this season the Buckeyes have done a good job at not giving up the basketball, as they have committed fewer than 10 turnovers in five of their first nine games this year.
What should help Ohio State snap their recent losing streak against Penn State is the confidence they are playing with right now. Sophomore guard Bruce Thornton has made a big leap after a solid freshman year in Columbus. Along with Thornton, Roddy Gayle Jr. has improved greatly, and the additions of Jamison Battle and Evan Mahaffey have been paying early dividends.
While it seems like Penn State always plays Ohio State tough, if there was ever a time to catch the Nittany Lions, this is the time to do so. Right now Penn State isn’t playing with a lot of confidence during their five-game losing streak. Defense has been lacking for the Nittany Lions during their losing streak, as they have allowed at least 76 points in each of those five losses. The subpar defense could be a problem against an Ohio State team that has scored at least 80 points in each of its last five games.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 56.8%
Time: 6:00 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network