After playing their last two games on the road, Ohio State returns home tonight to host the Penn State Nittany Lions. Whether it has been on the road or at home, the results over the past two months haven’t been what head coach Chris Holtmann and Buckeye Nation have been hoping for. With Sunday’s 82-55 loss to Purdue, Ohio State has now lost eight-straight games, and 12 of their last 13 contests.
The Buckeyes went into Sunday’s game shorthanded, as Zed Key wasn’t in the lineup because of a shoulder injury. With Key missing, Ohio State started four true freshmen for the first time since the final regular season game of the 1995-96 season. Freshmen have played 40 percent of the minutes for the Buckeyes this season, which is the highest percentage in the Big Ten.
After hanging tough for most of the first half in West Lafayette on Sunday, Zach Edey and the Boilermakers eventually took over and showed why they are in the conversation as one of the best teams in the country. Purdue went into halftime leading 38-29 before leaving no doubt in the result, outscoring Ohio State 44-26 in the second half.
Brice Sensabaugh led the Buckeyes with 20 points, while Sean McNeil added 10 points in 32 minutes of the bench. The duo were the only two Ohio State players to reach double figures in scoring in the game. Sensabaugh is now 55 points shy of becoming the sixth Ohio State freshman to score at least 500 points in his first season in Columbus. On the season, Sensabaugh leads the team with 16.5 points per game.
With Key sidelined by inury, Felix Okpara will see more time on the floor the rest of the season. The big man swatted four shots on Sunday, marking the ninth game this year where he has recorded multiple blocks in a game. Okpara has 30 blocks this season, which ranks 10th in the conference despite the freshman only averaging 13.3 minutes per game.
One player that didn’t envision such a struggle in his final year is Justice Sueing. After missing almost all of last season, Sueing returned to Ohio State for his senior season. Even though Sueing is second on the team with 12 points per game, it’s obvious that shouldering so much of a leadership role on a young team is wearing on him. Sueing was just 2-of-9 from the field against Purdue, finishing with six points, as well as five turnovers. Over the last three games, Sueing is 6-of-25 from the field, scoring 19 total points.
Tonight Ohio State hosts Penn State, who always seem to give the Buckeyes a tough game. Ohio State won both regular season meetings with the Nittany Lions last year before Micah Shrewsberry’s team snapped a four-game losing streak against the Buckeyes with a 71-68 win in the Big Ten Tournament. Ohio State led by as many as 13 points in the game, and 11 points at halftime before Penn State erased the deficit to move on square off with Purdue in the quarterfinals.
Penn State is in their second season under head coach Micah Shrewsberry, who is 30-28 during his time in State College. Prior to taking the head coaching position at Penn State, Shrewsberry was an assistant with the Boston Celtics from 2013-19 before spending a year on Matt Painter’s staff at Purdue.
Shrewsberry has Penn State in the mix to possibly earn an NCAA Tournament bid if they can close the regular season strong. If the Nittany Lions are included in the field, it would be their first tournament appearance since 2011 when they lost 66-64 to Temple in the first round.
The last time Penn State took the court, they defeated Minnesota 76-69 on Saturday night in Minneapolis. The Nittany Lions fell behind 52-50 in the second half before retaking the lead for good. Jalen Pickett nearly notched a triple-double in the victory, finishing with 32 points, 9 rebounds, and 9 assists. Camren Wynter added 14 points, while Andrew Funk finished with 11 points.
Pickett’s output against Minnesota wasn’t even his best performance of the week. The senior scored 41 points in a win over Illinois last Tuesday, becoming the first Nittany Lion to score 40 points in a game since 1961. The 41 points are the most scored by a Big Ten player this season. With 73 points and 16 assists over his two games last week, Pickett was named the National and Big Ten Player of the Week.
This season Pickett is averaging 18.6 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game, making him the only player in the country averaging 18/7/7. Over the last 30 years, Denzel Valentine of Michigan State is the only player to hit those marks in a season. With 2,054 points, 707 rebounds, and 787 assists, Pickett is the only player to cross 2,000 points, 700 rebounds, and 700 assists in at least 37 years.
Penn State has expertly used the three-pointer this year to their advantage. As a team, the Nittany Lions have made 293 triples, which is two shy of setting a new school record. In 2017-18, Penn State hit 294 three-pointers in 39 games on their run to winning the NIT Championship. The Nittany Lions are also within striking distance of the Big Ten record of 365 three-pointers that Purdue hit in the 2018-19 season.
When it comes to shots from behind the arc, Penn State has a couple of the best shooters in the conference. Andrew Funk tops the Big Ten with 3.04 three-pointers made per game, while Seth Lundy’s 44.1 percent success rate from distance is the high-mark in the conference, and eighth-best in the country. Five Nittany Lions have hit at least 20 three-pointers this season.
Even though it is tough to win on the road in the Big Ten, it has been even tougher for Ohio State to win a game in Big Ten play since the start of 2023. The Buckeyes are struggling mightily, and things are getting worse for Chris Holtmann’s team. For a while, even though Ohio State was losing games, the majority of those losses were by single digits. The last three losses for the Buckeyes have come by a combined 65 points.
In tonight’s game, the biggest difference is going to be experience. Penn State is one of six teams in the country that has five players on their roster who have scored at least 1,000 career points. On the other side, Ohio State is coming off a game where they started four true freshmen in a game for the first time in nearly 30 years. Even though those freshmen are very talented, they haven’t gelled quite like many had thought they would.
Ohio State has to hope that Penn State isn’t hitting their three-pointers if they want to have any hope of snapping their losing streak. Even if the Nittany Lions aren’t seeing their triples fall, they still have an incredible scoring talent in Jalen Pickett, who could do work inside the arc to open up opportunities for his teammates outside the arc. If Pickett is anywhere close to as dialed in as his last two games, it’s hard to see the Buckeyes being able to put in enough points to keep up.
It is tough to have any confidence in Ohio State right now with not only the loss of Zed Key for the rest of the year, but also with just the malaise around the program right now. It is known that Ohio State won’t be playing any basketball after the Big Ten Tournament, and it feels like they have no interest in playing spoiler. The smart thing would be to let the underclassmen gobble up minutes to help prepare them for the future, which isn’t a good recipe against an experienced Penn State team that is hungry to earn their spot in the NCAA Tournament.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 69.4%
Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network