The last meeting between the Buckeyes (13-2, 3-2 Big Ten) and Nittany Lions (10-5, 2-2) quickly turned into a rout as host OSU coasted to a 104-69 win in the Jan. 5 Big Ten opener.
Penn State has been playing well of late and it has proven to be a different team at the Bryce Jordan Center. The Nittany Lions are 9-2 at home this season, including 1-1 in conference play.
Ohio State is coming off a crucial 77-67 win over Wisconsin on Wednesday. The Buckeyes know they cannot afford a letdown against Penn State, a team that will surely be motivated considering the way the last game turned out.
"No question," OSU head coach Thad Matta said. "I think when we played Penn State the first time, it was one of those nights both ways. It was a great night for us and I know that they would probably like to have that game back. And now you go on the road and obviously they are playing much better. It's another challenge for our guys."
Matta has noticed a few specific improvements in the Nittany Lions' play over the last two weeks.
"They're shooting the ball better, they're playing a lot more zone defense," he said. "I think all in all, things are clicking for them better than they were that one night in here. They came in here with a very good record. So, I think they are just a much better basketball team."
Penn State's best player is forward Geary Claxton (6-5, So.). He averages a team-high 15.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game.
"He's a tremendous player and is a lot like a (Alando) Tucker from Wisconsin," Matta said. "We know that we've got to do a great job on him and eliminate his scoring and rebounding."
Another key player for the Lions is forward Jamelle Cornley (6-6, Fr.). The Columbus Brookhaven product is averaging 13.4 points and 5.1 boards.
"He's very explosive, he finishes well, tough kid," Matta said. "I think with a guy like Jamelle, he has a lot of freedom to step out, post up and he's really playing well."
For the Buckeyes, senior center Terence Dials has continued to play well during Big Ten competition. Dials is averaging a team-best 14.9 points and 7.1 rebounds.
The 6-9 Dials now has 1,302 career points. During the Wisconsin game, he passed Clark Kellogg for 22nd place on OSU's scoring list. Dials is also ninth all-time at OSU with 726 rebounds.
But possibly the most improved player on the team over the last month is sophomore point guard Jamar Butler. For the season, he is averaging 9.1 points and 4.9 assists.
Butler is tied for the Big Ten lead in assist-to-turnover ratio at plus-3.83. In five conference games, Butler has been even better. He owns an impressive plus-13.5 assist-to-turnover ratio.
"Well, I think number one, Jamar has been a lot more productive offensively scoring-wise," Matta said. "He seems to be more in an attack mode with the basketball. But the great thing is he is taking care of the basketball well and I couldn't be more pleased with the way he is playing. And his defense, he is doing a great job of defending on the ball too. … He's really growing into a very good player."
Senior guard Je'Kel Foster has endured a couple of rough shooting nights recently, but Matta is not concerned about it. Foster is averaging 14.3 points and is shooting 49 percent from 3-point range.
"Je'Kel and I talked yesterday, I've got no worries about him," Matta said. "He's the toughest kid I've ever coached and I don't know if I've ever coached a guy more passionate about winning. You combine those two and I'm happy."
Senior forward Matt Sylvester continues to struggle with his shot. Overall, he is shooting 40 percent from the floor, the worst percentage on the team. Sylvester is averaging 7.8 points and 2.9 rebounds.
Picking up some of the slack is OSU's bench. Junior guard Ron Lewis is averaging 12.7 points and has proven to be instant offense off the pine. Junior forward Ivan Harris is also playing much better of late. He had two key 3-pointers in the win over Wisconsin.
Having a deep bench is one of the keys to having a Big Ten championship-caliber team.
"No question about that," Matta said. "I think getting Ivan on track is good for us. Ron has been solid coming off the bench. Matt (Terwilliger is) doing a much better job. I think that really does give us more confidence when we're playing more guys."
"I couldn't tell you right now who is going to win the conference," Matta said. "I think it is wide open. As I said before it all started, the team that gets on a roll and steals a couple victories here and there is probably going to be the team that wins it. I think it is a tremendous league."
Ohio State enjoys the early road games, as long as it wins. Playing at noon allows the Buckeyes to play the game and still get back to Columbus in the early evening; as opposed to playing at 8 p.m. and arriving back home in the middle of the night.
"That's another one that falls in the category of: I just play when they tell us to," Matta said. "If you win, it's one of the greatest things ever. (Xavier head coach and former Matta assistant) Sean Miller use to say, ‘There's nothing better than playing an early game, then going home and watching that ticker all night.' But yeah, it is what it is and we've got to be ready to go at noon (Saturday)."
Sullinger Respects Penn State
Senior forward J.J. Sullinger is having a solid year for OSU and is averaging 9.7 points and 7.1 rebounds. This is his third year in the Big Ten and he knows there are no easy conference games on the road.
"They're definitely a good team," Sullinger said of Penn State. "They play really well at home, so we know they are going to be a different ball club. It's not going to be easy. We still have to have the same mindset and the same mentality going in. It's hard to win on the road in the Big Ten, so we've got to have that mindset to get the job done."
Sullinger explained why OSU was able to defeat the Nittany Lions with such ease in the last meeting.
"We just knew that we had to come out and play hard," he said. "It was the Big Ten opener for us and we were excited about the situation and we just jumped on them early. Whenever the ball is falling in the basket like that, it's hard to beat anybody. We were shooting the ball extremely well and hopefully that carries over to the game (Saturday)."
Sullinger says Ohio State is a tougher team this season, both mentally and physically. He also says the players have a better grasp of Matta's system.
"I would say so," he said. "A big difference in this year's team and last year's team is that Coach Matta would always tell us to trust the system. But we were trusting the system without knowing what the heck we were doing. We were just trusting that he knew what he was talking about. But this year we know what he's talking about. We understand. We know it's going to work. I think that's the biggest difference: just understanding what he wants us to do, instead of him telling us."