Although the final game of the regular season for OSU will be a March 2 contest with Illinois, which sits fifth in the conference standings, tonight's road contest with lowly Penn State might be the most challenging game remaining on the schedule.
After having opened the Big Ten slate with 12 consecutive losses, the Nittany Lions enter the game on a two-game winning streak after having earned road victories at Northwestern and Michigan. For the Buckeyes to keep the pressure on conference leader Purdue, which holds a half-game lead in the standings, they can not afford a loss the rest of the way.
"Our attitude is the same: We're playing for a championship," OSU junior guard Jon Diebler said. "We can't control what happens at Purdue but we've got to take care of business ourselves. Penn State is playing great right now."
Although the Buckeyes still must host Michigan – which beat them in Ann Arbor earlier this year – and Illinois, internet statistician Ken Pomeroy feels the biggest chance for an OSU loss is in this game. According to figures published on his website kenpom.com, the Buckeyes have a 92 percent chance of beating the Wolverines and an 85 percent chance of winning against the Fighting Illini.
Tonight's game features an 82 percent chance of OSU victory.
There is a lot more to it than simple statistics, however. Buckeye victories at the Bryce Jordan Center have been anything but easy to come by. OSU is 8-7 on PSU's home court, a figure that includes a four-game winning streak. During the 2006-07 season, a Buckeye squad that would go on to play for a national championship squeaked out a two-point victory on St. Valentine's Day. In that contest, PSU had a shot to win it at the buzzer after having come back from a 21-point halftime deficit.
This year's Nittany Lions pulled to within one possession of the Buckeyes in the final moments before the Buckeyes pulled away down the stretch and earned a 13-point victory Feb 3.
It was yet another case where PSU was able to climb back but did not have enough firepower to overtake a Big Ten opponent. That has apparently changed within the last week.
"Even though we weren't winning games, I didn't think we were playing poorly poorly," PSU head coach Ed DeChellis said. "I think we had stretches in our games where we didn't execute and didn't do some things and that cost us an opportunity to win. The last two games we made the timely shots when we needed to and grabbed the big rebound when we needed to."
The Nittany Lions have gotten consistent play from junior Talor Battle all season, and he sits third in scoring during conference games at 19.1 points per game. The reason for his team's recent success, DeChellis said, lies in the fact that teammates such as junior forward Jeff Brooks and sophomore guard Chris Babb.
OSU head coach Thad Matta has preached self-focus since his arrival on campus, and his message of staying even keel regardless of where his team sits in the standings has seemingly been embraced by this year's team.
His hope is that such an outlook will keep his team from overlooking the Nittany Lions after earning a road victory at then-No. 11 Michigan State on Sunday.
"For our guys, hopefully they have the understanding of what we have to do," he said. "As I told them, the game on Sunday scores no points for us going into this game. It's about a short turnaround, getting prepared and being able to go in there and execute at the highest level."
In addition to playing their fourth road game in their last five contests for the second time this season, the Buckeyes are in the midst of a grueling stretch to close out Big Ten play. Their final four conference games are being played during a nine-day stretch. As such, OSU's players will not get a day of rest this week and instead will get two next week.
"Maybe the segments aren't quite as long as they normally are, but getting guys moving, sprinting up and down the floor, pushing the ball, getting back in transition, those are things that we definitely wanted to do," Matta said.
The coach added that players such as Diebler and classmate Evan Turner would almost be expected to have a letdown in a game like this one during their freshman campaigns. According to Diebler, that could also have been true last season. Now, not so much.
"That's where we've grown as a team," he said. "Last year because of our youth we might have relaxed a little bit, but this year we've been through it and we know what to expect. They've got a top-10 team coming in and they've won two in a row. That could be a huge win for their season."