What a difference a year makes. And on paper, you would have never guessed.
Nearly one year ago, the Ohio State men’s basketball team, ultimate national runners-up and 35-4 Big Ten Champions, led in State College by 24 points in the second half before nearly suffering a blatant collapse. The Buckeyes watched nervously as a Mike Walker 3-pointer at the buzzer fell harmlessly to the floor.
Ohio State survived the Penn State scare 64-62, finishing a 22-game win streak until falling to Florida in the National Championship.
As the road, particularly Happy Valley has not always been easy for the Buckeyes, last night figured to be little exception with a young Ohio State team that is still fresh off a three-game road losing streak. A halftime 34-34 tie gave some inclination the inexperienced Buckeyes might suffer a fourth consecutive loss away from home.
But this time, Ohio State won going away.
Playing better defense in the second half, and continuing solid-though-not-spectacular execution on offense, the Buckeyes (led by senior Jamar Butler – again) used a critical 16-0 second half run to claim a 68-56 victory against Penn State Tuesday evening.
The Nittany Lions, playing without leading scorer and rebounder Geary Claxton, who suffered a season-ending knee injury, picked up the slack with their 3-point shooting making nine shots from the outside. However, as Penn State found success early, they became reliant on the three-ball, shooting 4-of-19 in the second half, often settling for long, contested attempts.
Though the victory over a 10-10 Penn State team (2-6 Big Ten) may not be an attention-grabber for Ohio State, it was a large leap for a team that has struggled to put teams away down the stretch.
Ohio State (15-6, 6-2 Big Ten) hits the road Saturday against Iowa, who the Buckeyes beat handily 79-48 in their first encounter Jan. 9 in Columbus. This time, it figures to be much tougher sledding against the Hawkeyes, who handed Michigan State its only loss in Iowa City.
But the potential reward is great. Ohio State has the opportunity to finish up half of the new 18-game conference schedule 7-2 – a pace to finish 14-4 for the season. Further, Ohio State has a beneficial stretch coming up with home games against Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin and road trips to Michigan and Northwestern. It’s a chance to go 4-1 or 5-0 during that period, including the game Sunday, Feb. 10 against Indiana which has been dubbed a “white out” by Ohio State.
The Buckeyes finish with road games against Indiana and Minnesota, before ending the regular season in Columbus against Purdue and Michigan State.
As for Penn State on Tuesday, here’s the rest of the breakdown:
When Penn State Had the Ball
*The clear improvement in quickness and athleticism by the Penn State backcourt gave a lot of troubles in the first half to Ohio State. For starters, the Buckeyes were terrible in getting back on defense in transition. I was impressed with the speed of junior college transfer guard Stanley Pringle, who had a timely 6 points and five assists in 32 minutes.
*Being an Achilles Heel for much of the season, Penn State’s perimeter shooting kept them in the game. Guard Danny Morrissey was 4-of-11 from 3-point range, adding 12 points. Ohio State’s clear focus was to drop the defense back against 6-5 forward Jamelle Cornley. The attention allowed Penn State many open looks from outside.
*More importantly, Penn State executed a great offensive strategy in the first half. With Ohio State playing a 2-3 zone and cluttering Cornley, Penn State brought a man to the foul line, a known soft-spot of that kind of zone. Penn State used this to their advantage by sneaking guys down the baseline behind the defense for easy shots within 5-feet, or they would simply kick the ball to the corners for open 3-pointers with the defense slow to react. However, the increased defensive reaction and poor shot selection in the second half by Penn State was the ultimate downfall.
*As it’s been reported the Ohio State coaches have stepped up their challenge to Butler for creating more turnovers on defense, Butler has been delivering. He’s shown quicker hands and still maintained a good decision-making process as to when to go for the pick. In the second half, Butler smothered Morrissey for most of the last 15 minutes, giving him very few easy looks like he had early in the game.
*Though the Buckeyes did a yeoman’s job on Cornley (5 points and three rebounds), the Ohio State effort on the defensive glass wasn’t without flaws. Center Andrew Jones added 11 points and 10 rebounds, as Penn State out-rebounded Ohio State 34-30, including 15-8 on the offensive boards.
When Ohio State Had the Ball
*For the umpteenth time this season, Butler was playing like one of the top guards in the Big Ten, if not the nation. Butler played what seemed to be one of his most comfortable games all season, going for 20 points, six assists, three steals, 6-of-11 shooting, four 3-pointers and 4-of-4 from the free throw line. If not for three turnovers in the last five minutes, it would have been a near perfect stat line.
*It was one of the better games this season for Ohio State in terms of ball movement. Penn State played an active zone, an ingredient for failure by Ohio State sometimes this season. However, though he quietly scored just 5 points – all in the last two minutes, Evan Turner contributed mightily to the effort with a game-high seven assists. Turner also added seven rebounds, a steal and two blocked shots. More proof that Turner doesn’t need to score 17-20 points per game (as he’s done the past three games) to help Ohio State.
*Although arguably the Buckeyes didn’t make enough of an effort to feed him the ball, Othello Hunter had a very productive 8 points and six rebounds. Freshman Kosta Koufos had solid day, going for 10 points and five boards. It does, however, give the impression Ohio State’s guards appear at times to be too bashful making entry passes to their post players. There were several times throughout the second half where a guard had the ball out on the wing with Hunter or Koufos set up one-on-one on the block with great position, and they were not rewarded with the ball. Ohio State goes through stretches where it clearly emphasizes post-passing, but when Matta doesn’t specifically put the focus on that aspect, it seems the bigs aren’t often fed.
*Perhaps the biggest, but most unheralded story in recent weeks has been the comfortable play of senior Matt Terwilliger. The 6-9 forward has found a niche within the Ohio State offense, coming up with timely 3-pointers, momentum-changing dunks and the occasional gigantic block or two. Though averaging just over three points per game, Terwilliger has become the ultimate role player that finally understands his spot within the team. The confidence in his outside shot has actually improved his overall production. Tuesday, Butler delivered a perfect pass right before halftime to a slicing Terwilliger, who finished an easy lay-in tying the game 34-34. It appears as the year wears on, Terwilliger comes up with more and more plays just like that one.