The Buckeyes (16-8, 5-5) are coming off an 83-69 loss at Michigan State Wednesday. Ohio State played well in the first half, but lost control of the game in the second stanza. The Nittany Lions (7-15, 1-8) are in last place in the Big Ten, but they gave OSU all it could handle on Jan. 25 in Columbus (a 68-62 OSU win).
Penn State is led by bruising 6-9 junior center Aaron Johnson. He leads PSU in scoring at 13.1 points per game, and leads the conference in rebounding at 10.4 per game.
The rest of its starting lineup includes: 6-5 freshman G/F Geary Claxton (12.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg), 6-5 junior forward Travis Parker (11.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg), 6-2 freshman guard Mike Walker (7.3 ppg, 2.0 assists per game) and 6-0 sophomore guard Ben Luber (5.6 ppg, 3.8 apg).
The top player off the bench is 6-3 freshman guard Danny Morrissey (6.9 ppg). He also starts occasionally.
Ohio State continues to be led by 6-9 junior center Terence Dials. He scored 22 points against Michigan State – 14 in the first half – and is now averaging 15.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.
"Terence came to play on Wednesday night and we've got to continue to move him in that direction where he comes out and has a certain feel, or look about him," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "I thought in that game he played more aggressively at both ends – defensively and offensively. And that started with the Michigan game. I thought defensively against Michigan was one of his better games. He was more active in moving around and hopefully we can continue to keep building on that because I think that generates more offense for him as well."
The one downside with Dials this season has been his free throw shooting. He's shooting a Shaq-like 58 percent from the stripe (well, that would be on fire for Shaq, but you get the point).
"I know we've talked about this a lot: He was a 72 percent free throw shooter last year," Matta said. "Free throw shooting is such a fragile thing, because I believe it is mental."
Matta was asked for his thoughts on playing a team for the second time in less than a month.
"Obviously you have a better feel for what they want to do, as well as what you want to do against them," he said. "It's kind of the beauty of conference play, that's what you love if you're a true competitor and you want to get back at it again."
Last year, Ohio State had one of its most humiliating losses of the season when it traveled to State College and fell 64-47.
"This is a game where we (OSU) went out there last year and got destroyed," Matta said. "Hopefully our guys have a great understanding of why. I don't know why. But hopefully they know."
Junior forward Matt Sylvester continues to play well as the Buckeyes' sixth-man. He is averaging seven points per game.
Matta was asked why Sylvester has earned more playing time recently than starter Ivan Harris at the four.
"A couple things," he said. "First of all, he's making our team better by his passing. And he's scoring the ball. I would like for him to rebound better, especially on the defensive end. But I think he's given us a certain flow that when he comes in the game. He's doing a good job."
Junior forward J.J. Sullinger is averaging 10.3 points and 5.3 boards per game. He is a hot and cold player and OSU does well when Sullinger is on his game.
"No question about that," Matta said. "When James is playing well, we have a tendency to play well. Continuing to bring him along and get out of him… I think one of his biggest things is his rebounding. He rebounds the ball well. I think, as I look at him, his defense is steadily improving and that's important for our team. If we can get him to go from three mistakes a game, to two, that's huge for us."
Arguably the pleasant surprise of the season has been the play of junior college transfer Je'Kel Foster. He is averaging 8.1 points per game, is shooting 45 percent from 3-point range and is the best defender on the team. But Matta is not surprised that Foster has played so well.
"No, it doesn't," he said. "Because the first time I talked to Je'Kel on the phone, it was that deal of, ‘God, this kid wants to win. He wants to be a player.' Then when you get up here and you meet him, he's got a great commitment to the team and winning."
Is Foster the most complete player on the roster?
"Yeah, I think he is," Matta said. "I think he's capable of getting the job done and I think he enjoys it – I think he enjoys defending. I think the No. 1 thing that kid enjoys is winning. He's one guy that can honestly say, ‘If don't score and we win, I'll be happy.'"
"I think they're OK, because we've talked to them about it," Matta said. "We've talked to them about, ‘OK, this has changed, but these are still the expectations we need from you.'
"For Tony and Brandon, we have to get them to bring the energy that they've shown they can do and bring their abilities and (do) a little bit more. I think it's important and hopefully they're getting a feel for that as well.
"I think Je'Kel is a great example (of what I want out of Stockman and Fuss-Cheatham). Je'Kel for the first 20 games, or whatever it was, came off the bench and said, ‘OK, coach wants me to do this to help us win. I'll do it.' I think those guys have the experience to do that."
Stockman took his latest ill-advised shot in the first half of the Michigan State game. With the Buckeyes nursing a small lead and halftime approaching, Stockman pulled up one-on-three and launched a 3-pointer.
"That was a bad shot because of the time, the score and the situation," Matta said. "We were up five or six at the time and we want to make them defend. You have Michigan State on their heels a little bit. The half is winding down, let's make them defend us."
Stockman is obviously not happy about losing his starting spot and seeing his minutes decline.
"Nah," he said. "Maybe because I don't understand it, I guess."
Matta said he's had conversations with Stockman about the situation, but Stockman is still puzzled.
"Yeah, I've talked to him a little bit about it," Stockman said. "But he just talked about me playing harder and me playing my best basketball."
Matta has not explained why Foster is playing ahead of Stockman?
"Nope," Stockman said.
Has Stockman asked Matta about it?
"It's his call," Stockman said. "I just have to go with it, I guess."
Stockman was asked if he can do anything different, such as better shot selection.
"I don't know," he said. "Because I don't understand the whole situation why it happened. So, I don't know exactly what he wants me to do, or what I was doing wrong. Because I was starting for so long, and all of a sudden he just switched it. And he just said that's what he was doing. He didn't really say why, or what I was doing wrong, or why he made the change. I don't know."
Can Stockman take any positives away from coming off the bench, such as providing a spark for his team?
"If you're going to look for positives, I guess you could say on the bench you get to watch the game and maybe learn some things that the other team is doing, or things you can accomplish when you're out there," he said. "Maybe see some holes in their defense, or maybe see some things you can do on our defense."
Stockman was asked specifically about the bad shot at MSU.
"(Matta) just said that it was quick and make sure we don't give up one on the other end," he said. "Maybe it's the defensive style, I'm not totally sure because, like I said, I thought I was doing the same stuff from before, when I was starting from the beginning. I really don't know."
With OSU banned from postseason play, it's easy to understand that Matta wants to get his players ready for next season. You could make the argument that Foster and Jamar Butler are simply playing better than Stockman and Fuss-Cheatham, but next year is also factoring into the decision.
"Yeah, I know he's trying to get them ready for next year and I can understand that," Stockman said. "I'm not his recruit and stuff like that. Know what I mean? I understand where he ain't got loyalty to me, as much as he would to one of his recruits. He might be getting them ready for next year and putting them in positions so they'll get that experience."
It was pointed out to Stockman that Foster also was not a Matta recruit.
"Yeah, but I'm saying he has them for next year," he said. "Know what I mean? We're gone. This is it for us. So, he has them next year and he has to worry about them and get them ready for next season. I'm not sure."
Stockman gave a quick update on his son, Tayden, who was born prematurely in January and is still in the hospital.
"He's doing real well," Stockman said. "He's still in intensive care, but he's in step two, which I'm not totally sure what that is, but they don't watch him as much. All he has to do now is do better with drinking the bottle and then he can come home. So, as long as he starts eating better, he can come home early."
* As for Dials, he knows that every team Ohio State plays wants to take him out of the game. Either by getting him in foul trouble, or by double-teaming him defensively.
"It's definitely a compliment that their main focus is to get you out of the game," Dials said. "At Michigan State, I was one-on-one the whole first half and I did most of my damage in the first half. In the second half, they made some adjustments and corrected that, but I think it's a compliment when the coaches pay you a lot of respect like that and it's a credit for my team as well."
With a lack of depth in the post, Dials knows that the Buckeyes need him to play well each night to have a chance to win.
"I believe so," he said. "(Matta) told me that early in the season. In order for us to be successful, I have to play well, I have to play hard and be dominant. That's what I've been trying to do. Staying in the game is a big key with that because when I'm out of the game our team seems to struggle a little bit. So, I just have to stay in the game and make sure I'm doing all the things that my team needs me to do."
Dials says Penn State is more dangerous than its record indicates.
"They're struggling a little bit, like they were when we played them last time, but they haven't stopped playing, they haven't stopped fighting," he said. "It's going to be a challenge. I have another good big man to go up against in Aaron Johnson."
We're not sure if it's because he was standing right next to him in the press room, but Sylvester had this to say about his big center: "I think Terence is the best post player in the Big Ten. He's going to get keyed on every night, but he's still producing for us. We just need to keep feeding the animal. He's the best in the conference."
One final note: Matta watched the Xavier-Cincinnati "Crosstown Shootout" game Thursday – a 65-54 Bearcat win. Matta was 2-1 against Cincinnati while he was at Xavier.
"I thought it was a great game," he said. "I thought Cincinnati's experience really showed and Xavier's inexperience and youth. But it was a good game."
Matta was happy to just kick back, relax and watch the game. But it's nothing like being there.
"Honestly, for the first time watching it on television, the TV doesn't do that game justice," he said. "You have to be in that arena to really understand and you have to walk the walk to the game as a coach. I mean, everything from… I don't know if they still do the luncheon anymore, but the dinner before, dealing with the media trying to get to the players and the baiting of questions trying to generate controversy going into the game is absolutely incredible."