Ohio State doesn’t yet know who it will face when it opens Big Ten tournament play Friday night at Madison Square Garden in New York. What the second-seeded Buckeyes do know is that they have a chance to face a team that handed them two of their three conference losses.
So while Ohio State is toeing the line and paying credit to No. 10 seed Northwestern and No. 7 seed Penn State, who play each other at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, plenty of eyes are on the potential for a third go-round between the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions.
“As competitors, you always want to play the team that beat you, but Penn State doesn’t have an easy task on Thursday against Northwestern,” Ohio State junior guard C.J. Jackson said Wednesday afternoon. “Whichever team wins, we’re going to be ready and prepare for either one.”
In their lone meeting this season, the Buckeyes beat the Wildcats 71-65 on Jan. 17 on their temporary home court in Rosemont, Illinois. Three games later, Ohio State lost at home to Penn State on a buzzer-beating, banked-in three-pointer from Tony Carr that prevented the game from going to overtime and handed the Buckeyes their first conference loss.
The return leg of the series wasn’t nearly that close. At home, Penn State led by as many as 30 points and cruised to a 79-56 win. Afterward, coach Chris Holtmann decried Ohio State’s competitiveness while also pointing out that the Nittany Lions’ bigger, more athletic guards posed significant matchup problems.
“They’re very talented,” Holtmann said of Penn State. “I had a guy tell me this week he felt they were maybe the most talented team in the league next to Michigan State. They’re very talented, and they play well together, too.”
The challenge a potential third meeting presents is how Ohio State would approach it. Do the Buckeyes change their plans drastically in hopes of changing the outcome, or do they largely stick with what has gotten them to 24-7 overall and 15-3 in the Big Ten?
“It’s a tough balance because you’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Holtmann said. “We’ve had a very successful year, but you’re also looking at, hey, are there some things as coaches that maybe we didn’t do a good enough job in those two games? We’re searching for that, yet at the same time we’re having a game plan ready for a good Northwestern team, too.”
Ohio State’s 56 points at Penn State marked a season low, as did its 25 rebounds and its .133 three-point shooting percentage (2 for 15). The Buckeyes shot a conference-season-worst 38.9 percent from the field and had a season-high eight blocked shots. Penn State’s 82 points and .583 shooting percentage in its first win were the worst marks allowed by the Buckeyes against a Big Ten opponent.
In its other 16 Big Ten games, Ohio State allowed teams to shoot 40.0 percent and average 62.9 points. Against the Buckeyes, Penn State shot 52.9 percent and averaged 80.5 points.
With that in mind, would Ohio State really like another crack at the Nittany Lions?
“I would like one, but I have no preference,” Big Ten player of the year Keita Bates-Diop said with a smile Monday.