Always-adapting Ohio State preparing for latest challenge in Penn State

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Forward Seth Towns (31) is in many ways the personification of the Ohio State men's basketball team, which enjoys itself before and after games, and buckles down during games.

The Big Ten basketball dance party kicks off in the final seconds before the opening tip.

At Ohio State’s Value City Arena, the moments before the game are filled with the pounding guitar riffs of Wolfmother’s “Joker and the Thief.” On the road, it could be almost anything.

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Wherever the Ohio State bench area is, the non-starters get down and revel in the moment. At center stage, Northland High School product and Harvard graduate transfer Seth Towns hops his way from the baseline to the end of the bench, arms swinging along his sides, as his fellow Buckeyes play air guitar or follow suit.

On Saturday evening inside the cramped visitors’ locker room at Wisconsin's Kohl Center, Towns performed an encore for his teammates. As they celebrated a 12-point win over the Badgers, Towns broke out his “Griddy Dance” as the players celebrated moving to 6-4 in Big Ten play under coach Chris Holtmann.

There’s a vibe around this Ohio State team, and it’s one a player like Towns typifies as the No. 13 Buckeyes prepare to host Penn State on Wednesday night.

“It’s certainly an unbelievable feeling, playing with Ohio State on the front of my jersey,” Towns said. “Whatever role I’m assigned, however many minutes I’m playing, I think fans everywhere and my teammates and staff can see that I’m gonna play hard regardless. Every single game, it doesn’t really matter. When my name is called I’m proud to be putting this jersey on and playing for this team.”

In a season of ebbs and flows, of postponements, cancellations and rescheduling — not to mention daily COVID-19 testing — Towns’ feelings have arguably as much to do with Ohio State’s success as the ability to put the ball in the basket.

A veteran roster with six active scholarship players in at least their fourth season of Division I college basketball has proven a valuable commodity for a team attempting to play through a pandemic.

That collective level of experience has been critical for the Buckeyes to climb the standings in a deep Big Ten.

“I think there’s an awareness from our guys that (we’re) playing in the caliber of league we’re playing in,” Holtmann said. “I think we do have a competitive group. We have a group that collectively feels it. You observe that as a coach.”

Holtmann credited that for his team’s ability to recover from a close home loss to Purdue last Tuesday. After leading the Boilermakers by double digits, Ohio State’s three-game win streak came to a halt when Purdue closed with an 8-1 run in a two-point win.

After a day of rest, the Buckeyes resumed practice, went to Wisconsin and never trailed against a team ranked No. 10 in the country at that point.

“We had a competitive group last year, as well, but this group feels (losses),” Holtmann said. “I think their response was as good of a response as maybe I’ve seen in terms of coming back the next day ready to work.”

That will be tested anew this week. The Buckeyes were scheduled for an eight-day break in between games, but when Michigan’s athletic department was shut down for COVID-related reasons, the Big Ten rescheduled the game between Ohio State and Penn State that was initially scheduled for Jan. 6 but postponed when the Nittany Lions had to pause their season due to COVID.

Instead of focusing on rest and getting players healthy, Ohio State had to start gearing up for a new opponent. It put a limit on how much recovery Towns and Kyle Young, both of whom have been limited in practice, could experience this week. Jimmy Sotos (shoulder) and Ibrahima Diallo (knee) both remain unavailable.

COVID. Injuries. Scheduling changes. They’re the new normal this season, and it’s up to the Buckeyes to keep rolling with the challenges.

“The moment you pat yourself on the back about being somewhat COVID-free is when it comes and bites you,” Holtmann said. “But, what we’ve asked our guys to do they’ve been great at doing. I think they’ve enjoyed the season. That helps.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

Ohio State vs. Penn State

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)