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Focused solely on Penn State, Buckeyes aiming to cut down turnovers in rematch

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Penn State's smothering defense made life difficult at times for guard CJ Walker and his Ohio State teammates in the teams' first meeting, an 83-79 OSU win on Jan. 27.

For one game, last season’s glaring weakness made its presence felt on this Ohio State men’s basketball season.

Four days after a dominating road win against Wisconsin in January, the Buckeyes hosted a Penn State team playing its fifth game in 11 days after a multi-week pause due to COVID-19 positive tests.

A 12-point Ohio State lead would disappear and the Nittany Lions would build one of their own by eight points before OSU rallied for an 83-79 home win on Jan. 27 despite a season-high 17 turnovers.

For 40 minutes that night, the Buckeyes looked reminiscent of a team that would finish 197th nationally in turnover percentage for the 2019-20 season.

“There were ones that we can control, and there were some that Penn State does what they do,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “There were a number of them we’ll point out and talk about how we have to make better decisions than what we did. We’ve got to be more committed to not making some of those careless plays.”

The good news for the Buckeyes was that they were able to weather the challenge. Now, No. 4 Ohio State (17-4, 11-4) will close its season series with Penn State (7-10, 4-9) on Thursday at the Bryce Jordan Center with an eye on adding to its six-game winning streak.

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Doing so will require being the 2020-21 version of the Buckeyes: one that takes care of the ball at a much higher level.

Despite the first Penn State game, as well as the loss of primary point guard CJ Walker for four games and backup Jimmy Sotos for the second half of the season, Ohio State entered midweek with the 10th-lowest turnover percentage in college basketball.

In the four games since beating Penn State, Ohio State has averaged 8.8 turnovers. The Buckeyes haven’t turned it over more than 10 times in any of games, and their six turnovers in a win at Iowa marked a season low. Last season’s team only had six games of single-digit turnovers in a 31-game season.

The difference is Penn State. The Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten in defensive turnover percentage, forcing teams to cough up the ball on 19.7% of their possessions. Jamari Wheeler, who had two steals against OSU in the first game, leads the Big Ten with 1.77 thefts per game. Sam Sessoms, who didn’t play against the Buckeyes due to an ankle injury, is among the Big Ten's leaders in steals per 40 minutes.

Penn State guard Jamari Wheeler, left, leads the Big Ten with an average of 1.77 steals per game.

The flip side is that, when Big Ten teams attempt a shot against the Nittany Lions, they are connecting on 46.7% of them, giving them the worst field-goal percentage defense in the league.

“We have to be more ball strong,” Holtmann said Wednesday. “We have to make better decisions. It’s a difficult matchup for us because defensively how they play, they play some actions differently. They always have (been difficult).”

The 17 turnovers against Penn State were spread evenly among the OSU ball-handlers. Duane Washington Jr. led the way with four, but Walker, Justice Sueing and forward E.J. Liddell all had three apiece.

When the final horn sounds Thursday, Ohio State will quickly have to turn the page for a looming showdown with No. 3 Michigan at Value City Arena on Sunday.

The game could have significant Big Ten title implications as well as an impact on NCAA Tournament seeding, but thus far this week the Buckeyes' attention has been on the Nittany Lions.

Asked if the Buckeyes were preparing for the Wolverines because of the quick turnaround, Holtmann said, “No. Not at all. Not in the least. Not one second. Our sole focus is Penn State.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

No. 4 Ohio State at Penn State

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

TV: Big Ten Network

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