Thanks to a road win at Purdue and a home victory over Iowa, Ohio State has climbed into the Top 10 for the first time in four years.
The No. 8 Buckeyes sit atop the Big Ten with two weeks to go before the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden.
Ohio State (22-5, 13-1 Big Ten) has won four straight, their last loss coming at home against Penn State on a last-second 3-point bank shot by Tony Carr.
Article continues below ...
The Buckeyes get a shot at payback when they travel Thursday to Bryce-Jordan Center in State College, Pa., to take on the Nittany Lions. While Ohio State is assured of a spot in the NCAA Tournament, the same can’t be said for Penn State.
The Nittany Lions (18-9, 8-6) have won five of six games since upending the Buckeyes on Jan. 25. Despite their only loss coming at the hands of No. 2 Michigan State during that stretch, Penn State knows there is little margin for error if they want to get to the NCAA Tournament.
After Ohio State, the Nittany Lions visit No. 6 Purdue. The opportunities are there for Penn State.
Heading into the first Ohio State game, the Nittany Lions were stuck in neutral at 3-5 in Big Ten play. Their season changed when Josh Reaves was declared eligible to play after missing four games (academics) in the middle of conference play. Penn State went 1-3 in those games.
Coach Pat Chambers sees a silver lining looking back at that rough stretch.
“I didn’t like those four games,” Chambers told The Collegian, the school’s student newspaper. “But maybe that’s what we had to go through to get to where we are today.
“I think those four games really helped us grow and mature. To get Nazeer (Bostick) those quality minutes … I think it was important for those guys to learn on the fly and through in-game experience.”
Reaves is an exceptional defender as he leads the conference in steals at 2.3 per game. He also contributes 10.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game.
He’ll need to be on his game as he likely will be guarding Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop, the favorite to win the Big Ten Player of the Year award. Chambers also will rely on Bostick to try to slow down Bates-Diop, who averages 19.9 points and 9.0 rebounds.
Bates-Diop on Wednesday was named to the Naismith Award late-season watch list. He’s also on the Wooden Award and Oscar Robertson Award watch lists. Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann acknowledges Bates-Diop is not a leading candidate for the awards but remains deserving.
“He’s so deserving of all of those kind of awards,” Holtmann said. “He’s proven it over and over again, his value to our team on each possession.”
Bates-Diop and Ohio State will welcome back senior guard Kam Williams, who is expected to play after being suspended for the past three games for violating team rules.
Holtmann was unsure how big a role the one-time starter will play, but did say Andre Wesson will get the start, not Williams.
“He’ll have to earn his way back to whatever role gives our team the best chance of winning,” Holtmann said.
Wesson, similar to Reaves, is a tenacious defender, which the Buckeyes needed against Penn State the first time they met when the Nittany Lions connected on 11 of 14 3-point attempts.
“I think it balances us more on the defensive end,” guard C.J. Jackson told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Andre’s ability to make shots helps us a lot. Defensively with him, Keita (Bates-Diop) and JT (Jae’Sean Tate) being able to switch a lot of these screens that we have to go through, it stabilizes us a little bit more.”