An early season menace is set to rear its head again for the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Just less than a month ago, Penn State — led by redshirt-junior guard D.J. Newbill and his 25 points — came to Columbus and ripped OSU’s heart out, defeating the Buckeyes, 71-70, in overtime.
In the 10 seasons that coach Thad Matta has been at the helm of the men’s basketball program, it was the first time the Buckeyes lost to the Nittany Lions, and it came six days after they beat Illinois to snap a four-game skid.
“Top 25 teams at home don’t lose these games,” senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said after the loss Jan. 29. “And we lost.”
Since the rock-bottom feeling of losing their fifth game out of seven during January, the Buckeyes have been on a tear this month, notching six wins and only losing once.
“I think we’re a different team. We learned from that loss, we know that we didn’t come out with the intensity and the toughness we needed to win,” junior forward Sam Thompson said Wednesday. “We allowed them to push us around a little bit on our home floor. We allowed them to go into a rhythm on both ends of the floor and really dictate the way that game was played.”
Following the loss to the Nittany Lions, Thompson was inserted into the starting lineup, a move that has proved to be beneficial, as he has averaged 8.1 points per game to up his season average to 7.5.
It appears as if the Buckeyes are playing with an added motivation lately as well, as they continue to make a push for one of the top four seeds in the Big Ten Tournament and the first-round bye that comes with it. A strong finish to the season will aid OSU’s case for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament as well.
“The rest of the season is definitely desperation for us, especially wanting to get a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. With the way the Big Ten’s going, a lot of teams have been losing — that’s a great thing for us so we can move up,” junior forward LaQuinton Ross said Wednesday. “I think the rest of the season, everybody in the locker room knows what’s at stake.”
That starts Thursday in State College, Pa., as No. 22 OSU looks to stay hot as it is set to take on Penn State (13-14, 4-10, tied for last in the Big Ten) at 7 p.m.
“It’s amazing when you go back and look at where we were at (against Penn State) and kind of the level that we’ve been playing at. We put ourselves in a really good position, but just could not make the plays,” Matta said Tuesday. “I think we’re showing signs of getting a lot better.”
Newbill carried the Nittany Lions down the stretch in round one against the Buckeyes (22-6, 9-6, fourth in the Big Ten), scoring their last six points in regulation and then four in overtime. Matta said in order to prevent that from happening this time around, it has to be a team effort.
“He can get you in so many different ways. So I think from the standpoint, it does take everyone on the floor doing their part,” Matta said. “If one guy rotates, then we gotta help the helper. It’s definitely a team effort to guard a guy like that.”
Thompson said although he made some big plays last month in Columbus, Newbill’s late game heroics were also a product of mental errors by OSU.
“Not taking anything away from him, he hit some big shots, but the shot at the end of regulation, that’s a messed up switch on our part on a guard-to-guard dribble hand off,” Thompson said. “We usually switch those, we didn’t switch that and Newbill got a wide-open look.”
Matta said those mental errors have since been corrected.
“I think that there’s more accountability, in terms of the respect they have to have to do the job,” Matta said. “In that game … there was a lot of things that happened that maybe we could have controlled better that we didn’t do, so yeah, you look back at those and say, ‘This can’t happen again.’”
OSU used a giant second half Saturday to take down Minnesota, 64-46, and Thompson helped the team to get trending in the right direction.
“I like where we are as a team right now. I think that we’re peaking at the right time. Offensively we have a certain swagger about us, defensively we’re really turning it up, so we’re playing some of the best defensive basketball that we’ve played,” Thompson said. “Individually, you have guys getting into rhythms, really contributing for this team. So I like where we are right now. Like we’ve always said, we have a veteran basketball team, so everyone has been here before and we’re looking to make a run.”