The Buckeyes are No. 23 in the most recent Associated Press poll. When Penn State received votes in that poll earlier this season, it was the first time since 2011.
Ohio State is seeking its ninth NCAA Tournament appearance in the last 10 seasons. The Nittany Lions have been in the tournament a total of nine times.
That’s all to say that the Buckeyes (18-6, 7-4) are expected to top Penn State (15-9, 3-8) when the two teams meet at Value City Arena tonight at 7 p.m. But after the Nittany Lions swept Ohio State last year, two games that were decided by a combined three points, the Buckeyes aren’t taking the Bit Ten bottom dwellers lightly.
“I think form the fact that they beat us twice last year and we hadn’t lost to them before that,” head coach Thad Matta said. “Obviously it was two down-to-the-wire games. I think from that perspective our guys are very, very aware. Just from the film sessions we’ve shown them they know how good Penn State is.”
Of the nine Nittany Lion losses this season, eight have come by single digits. Penn State entered conference play at 12-1, prompting them to receive votes in the AP poll, but opened Big Ten play with six straight losses.
A bright spot for Penn State this year has been D.J. Newbill. The senior guard is leading the conference in scoring with 20.9 points per game. Though he is just 6-4, he is the NIttany Lions second-leading rebounder at 4.9 per game and leads the team in assists with 3.1 a contest. The senior has been a one-man show for PSU this season as no other player averages double digits.
“I think that you are looking at guy that scores the basketball so many different ways,” Matta said of Newbill. “It’s hard to get a pattern on him, it’s hard to get a read in terms of, ‘hey, let’s take this away or he’s going to do this three out of four times,’ he’s very creative in how he gets his points and they do a good job of trying to free him up and give him angles to play off of.”
Ohio State is led by its own nationally relevant scorer in D’Angelo Russell (19.5 points per game, 20th nationally). As is the case with Newbill, Russell will be the only double-digit scorer on the court for his team tonight. That is because the Buckeyes are still without second-leading scorer Marc Loving. The sophomore has missed the past two games for Ohio State while serving a suspension for undisclosed reasons. He will not play against Penn State, though Matta said he may be available for Saturday’s game at Michigan State.
Loving continues to practice with the team.
“I’m hoping sooner rather than later,” Matta said of Loving’s return. “He’s doing everything, he’s doing extra in terms of not playing in the games. We’re doing more with him so he doesn’t miss a step when we do get him back.”
Ohio State sits at 7-4 in the Big Ten, knotted with six teams in the loss column. The Buckeyes are in good position to secure second place in the league, but can’t afford a loss to the Nittany Lions. Point guard Shannon Scott said the team is aware of the importance of tonight’s game and will not let last season repeat itself.
“They’re going to be a physical basketball team,” the senior said. “We know Newbill can score the ball with anybody in the country so he’s definitely a focus for us. They’re a hard-nosed playing team. They’re going to be diving on the floor and all that stuff, crashing the glass, everything that involves physicality basically so we’re going to be ready for that.”