With one star player performing at an all-time high while another sits on the shelf, the Ohio State men’s basketball team has its sights set on a team close to the bottom of the conference.
The No. 23 Buckeyes (18-6, 7-4) are scheduled to host Penn State (15-9, 3-8) on Wednesday night after the Nittany Lions beat OSU twice last season.
OSU coach Thad Matta was a perfect 17-0 against Penn State before falling at home in overtime, 71-70, on Jan. 29, 2014. Just less than a month later, it became 17-2, as the Nittany Lions again upended the Buckeyes, 65-63, in State College, Pa.
Matta said he holds a great deal of respect for Penn State coach Pat Chambers’ squad after the pair of close defeats last season.
“I think from the fact that they beat us twice last year … Our guys are very, very aware, just from the film sessions we’ve showed them, they understand how good Penn State is,” Matta said.
Matta confirmed Tuesday that Marc Loving will not be suiting up for the Buckeyes, for the third straight game.
Loving was suspended indefinitely for an undisclosed off-the-court reason before a Feb. 4 60-58 loss at Purdue. Matta said he found out about Loving’s suspension the Friday or Saturday after OSU’s Jan. 29 victory over Maryland, though it was not announced until before the Feb. 4 game.
However, the former leading three-point shooter in the nation could have a return on the horizon, Matta said.
“Maybe (Saturday at) Michigan State, yes,” Matta said.
But with the recent play of one of Loving’s perimeter mates, the Toledo native’s absence might not be leaving a huge dent.
Freshman guard D’Angelo Russell, fresh off the fourth triple-double in OSU history, has entered into many Naismith Award talks with his breakout performance, especially since Big Ten play began.
The Louisville, Ky., native is averaging 21.7 points to go along with 7.3 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game in 11 conference games. Russell did not hold back Tuesday, saying the opposition has reason to shudder at the thought of facing him.
“Personally, I feel like it’s scary for my opponents, because I feel like I get better every game, and every practice, I learn something that I didn’t know,” he said. “It’s scary, because I feel it, like I get better every game.”
Russell said his ability to drown out noise, both positive and negative, has allowed him to stay focused, as his rookie season has worn on.
“I just keep sticking to the same routine, not getting too high from the praise and not getting too low from the critics, or whatever has been said about me,” Russell said. “I’m just focusing on whatever we’ve got to do, on our goals, and keep winning as much as we can.”
The Nittany Lions have sputtered since beginning Big Ten play. After starting the season 12-1 in its non-conference slate, Penn State lost its first six Big Ten contests. It has since won three of its last five, but still sits 12th in the conference standings.
Senior guard Shannon Scott said the Buckeyes know what to expect from the Nittany Lions, especially after being swept last season.
“They’re a hard-nosed playing team,” Scott said. “They’re going to be diving on the floor, crashing the glass and everything that involves physicality, basically, so we’re going to be ready for that.”
However, Russell said it has been ingrained in each player’s psyche to ignore the opponent’s record coming into a game.
“We’ll treat this game like it’s (the) biggest game, and hopefully we get the right outcome,” Russell said.
Matta further praised the performance of Penn State senior guard D.J. Newbill, who is eighth in the nation with 20.9 points per game.
“What a great player,” Matta said. “I think that you’re looking at a guy that scores the basketball so many different ways. It’s hard to get a pattern on him, it’s hard to get a read.
“He’s very creative in how he gets his points, and they do a great job freeing him up and getting him angles to play off of.”
In addition to Russell, Matta said he hopes another freshman has entered the fold as a staple of the OSU offense.
Freshman forward Keita Bates-Diop earned his coach’s praise with a 14-point, nine-rebound performance off the bench in OSU’s victory at Rutgers on Sunday.
Matta said he hopes that can become a regular occurrence for the Normal, Ill., native.
“I think Keita has shown us flashes of what we want from him,” Matta said. “The fact that he was very assertive, very aggressive as he came into the game the other night, not only scoring but rebounding the basketball … hopefully that gives him a boost of a ‘Hey, I’m ready to go.’”
Tip for OSU’s game against Penn State is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Schottenstein Center.