INDIANAPOLIS – The Ohio State men’s basketball team took care of business Thursday night against Penn State, grinding out a 79-75 victory. But its work at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse is not done.
In some ways, it’s just beginning for the Buckeyes as they advance into the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament. That’s because their opponent Friday night is a team that has beaten them twice in less than three weeks: the Michigan State Spartans.
“This is the game we’ve been waiting for,” said OSU freshman center Daniel Giddens. “After our last loss at their place, we’re just ready to avenge ourselves.”
The Buckeyes started slow against the Nittany Lions, trailing by double digits at times in the first half before trimming it to a three-point deficit at the break. OSU used an explosive start in the second period to grab control and, eventually, after fending off a few late pushes by Penn State, the victory.
In the locker room after the game, most of the chatter wasn’t about what just happened on the floor, but instead, it centered on the things the Buckeyes need to do to extend their stay in Indianapolis into Saturday.
Simply put, the list is rather long.
“They pose so many problems,” said OSU coach Thad Matta.
The first thing the Scarlet and Gray have to do, sophomore forward Keita Bates-Diop said, is focus for 40 minutes, not just one half.
When the two teams played in Columbus on Feb. 23, the Buckeyes trailed by only five points at the break before losing by 19. The second time around, last Saturday in East Lansing, Michigan, OSU was within striking distance for the opening 15 minutes, then things started to sputter en route to a 15-point defeat.
The two-faced nature of the Buckeyes’ performances can’t be attributed to just one thing, said junior forward Marc Loving, who led OSU with 24 points against Penn State, but the Spartans’ pace of play, compounded with their ball movement, takes its toll.
If a strong second half is what’s needed to upset Michigan State, OSU showed it’s capable of putting forth one against Penn State. The Buckeyes roared back in the final 20 minutes Thursday night, scoring 45 second-half points.
Granted, Michigan State, the tournament’s second seed, is a whole different animal than Penn State, but it gives players confidence, Loving said.
“I feel like it should definitely carry over (to Friday),” he said.
The other big thing the Buckeyes will try to correct before Friday night, Giddens said, is not trying to put too much focus on just one player.
In the first game versus Michigan State, the attention was centered on Denzel Valentine, and rightfully so. The senior guard is a leading candidate for national player of the year, but he isn’t the only elite talent on coach Tom Izzo’s team.
With the Buckeyes concentrating on Valentine, senior guard Bryn Forbes took advantage, hitting six 3-pointers on his way to a 27-point performance.
In the regular-season rematch, the reverse happened. Steadfast on stopping Forbes, Valentine had a 27-point outing of his own, while adding 13 assists.
This creates all sorts of problems, Giddens said, but the team is aware now that everyone on the floor needs to buckle down and defend. If it puts too much attention on Forbes and Valentine, Giddens mentioned that senior forward Matt Costello could do damage of his own.
Although the task of advancing to the tournament semifinals will be a difficult one, many of the players said another crack at the Spartans is just what they wanted. After getting beat twice, they know what they need to flip the script this time around.
Their work starts now and continues until the ball gets tossed up Friday at 6:30 p.m.
“We’ll head back, grab something to eat, and we’ve already got (the film) we need to show ready,” Matta said. “I think they understand that the mission is not accomplished yet.”