Both moves started a spark that helped the Buckeyes earn an important victory with the Big Ten Tournament looming on the horizon, and both flew into the face of what had gotten them to this point.
For all but a few minutes this season, head coach Thad Matta had stuck with his team's zone defense in a move that at times seemed more rooted in stubbornness than anything else. Big Ten opponents were shooting 43.5 percent from the floor against the Buckeyes, and four of their last six opponents had shot better than 46.0 percent from the field. In addition, three of those six team shot better than 50 percent from three-point range.
It's not surprise, then, that when Penn State's Jamelle Cornley was asked if he was surprised that the Buckeyes opened the game in an entirely different defense he initially rolled his eyes as if to say, "Are you kidding me?"
For the first few minutes of the game, the Buckeyes employed a triangle-and-two defense designed to take PSU guards Stanley Pringle and Talor Battle out of the game. OSU freshman William Buford trailed Pringle, while junior P.J. Hill was assigned to Battle.
"It's pretty much our zone but just a little bit more matched up against the shooters," Hill said. "We tried to take their key players out of the game. We wanted to make everybody else beat us."
It certainly worked early on, as the Buckeyes opened up a 19-2 lead. It was not until the Nittany Lions began using three guards that OSU went back to its regular 3-2 defense.
That the Buckeyes were able to catch the visitors so off guard with so little time to prepare was a credit to how the Buckeyes have practiced throughout the season. With just one day to prepare after a home loss to Illinois, Matta showed his players that practices leading up to the week had actually prepared them to play a different type of zone.
"(We worked on it) just through different drills that we do and scramble-type situations," Matta said. "We do a lot of things they don't know about."
The Nittany Lions opened the game 1 for 6 from the floor and committed three turnovers on their first five possessions.
"They played a triangle and two early and it had us sideways," PSU head coach Ed DeChellis said. "We've worked on some things in practice, but we didn't execute real well."
Once back into their regular zone defense, the Buckeyes primarily stuck with it for the rest of the game. PSU entered the game 12-0 when it shot better than 40.0 percent from three, and the Nittany Lions finished the game 10 of 26 (38.5 percent) in the loss.
One of the keys to that defensive pressure was the play of Hill, a junior-college transfer a season ago who has seen his role grow in recent games. Junior Jeremie Simmons had started 25 games at the point this season – a fact that was partially responsible for freshman Anthony Crater's abrupt transfer from the team 10 games into the season.
This time, though, he gave way for Hill's first-ever start in a Buckeye uniform willingly. Having scored five points in his last three games, Simmons had played fewer minutes than Hill in each of those games – all OSU losses.
The same day that Matta was showing his players that they could play a different defense, he also found himself listening to Simmons telling him to start Hill in his place.
"Jeremie just said, ‘Hey look I can play better. I want to play better and I'd like to try coming off the bench,' " Matta said. "I think that says a lot about him."
Hill said he was excited for his chance because it helped the team earn its ultimate goal: a victory.
"I just want to help the team as much as I can," he said. "My goals are intertwined with team goals. If my goal is to win the game and coach thinks we can win the game or get off to a better start by me starting then that's what I want to do."
Both players responded to the move, giving the Buckeyes their most production from the point guard spot all season. Simmons led all scorers with 14 points while also playing off the ball at times, while Hill had a career-high 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting.
Simmons also hit a season-high four three-pointers in the game, more than he had in the last five games (three) combined.
Matta said he was not sure if he would have started Hill anyway had Simmons not told him to, adding that it was the first time he had experienced the situation as a coach.
"I've had a lot of kids and parents say I should be starting," he said with a laugh.