Starting Five: Buckeyes Host Penn State Before Stretch Run
By Ben Axelrod
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Two weeks after suffering its second loss of the Big Ten season, Ohio State finds itself a half game back of the spot occupied for the entirety of the 2010-11 season: top of the conference standings.
Currently, Michigan (16-5, 6-2) occupies the Big Ten’s top spot, but the No. 4-ranked Buckeyes (17-3, 5-2) will have the opportunity to join the Wolverines when they face Penn State (10-11, 2-6) at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in a game that will air on the Big Ten Network.
Not Looking Ahead
Should the Buckeyes make it past the Nittany Lions, a Sunday match-up with Michigan and the top spot in the conference on the line looms ahead. OSU coach Thad Matta said it’s his job to make sure that the Buckeyes aren’t looking ahead towards what will likely be one of the premiere match-ups of the Big Ten season.
“We never bring it up. It is strictly Penn State. I want them focused on one thing and one thing only and that’s Penn State,” Matta said Tuesday.
“I don’t think there’s a coach in the Big Ten that feels good about the next game they’re playing. That’s just documented by who’s beaten who.”
Ohio State sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr. seems to be buying in to what his coach is preaching.
“It’s all about a mindset. You have to come in and go above the intensity of the other team,” Smith said.
“Sometimes a team will come in and think that just because they won their last game they’re just going to show up and win. It just work like that.”
Dealing With Death
The Nittany Lions will be coming to Columbus from a somber campus that is still mourning the death of legendary football coach Joe Paterno. In their only outing since Paterno’s death on Sunday morning, the Penn State basketball team suffered a blowout loss to No. 17 Indiana.
Matta said he doesn’t have to look any further than his own program, which has recently dealt with the passing of associate athletic director Bill Jones, to understand what the Nittany Lions are going through.
“I know that for us, we dealt with that with Bill Jones passing the day of the Illinois game. I know for me that was a very, very, difficult day,” Matta said.
“I talked to the players about it after shoot around, they knew Bill, and he was a part of our program. That was hard. You obviously don’t wish that upon anybody.”
Scouting Penn State
In the Nittany Lions, the Buckeyes will find a team that is struggling with the departures of guard Talor Battle and former coach Ed DeChellis. Still, Penn State has managed to find some bright spots during the first year of Ed Chambers’ run as coach thanks to the play of junior guard Tim Frazier, who leads the Nittany Lions in scoring, assists, and rebounding.
“Our guys have seen enough film of them to appreciate him and how he’s playing, and really just what he mean’s to their team,” Matta said of Frazier.
“It’s a lot easier said than done that we’re going to stop him.”
Smith said that Penn State’s record isn’t indicative of the level of energy that the Nittany Lions bring to each game.
“They probably play harder than any team we’re going to play this year and watching them a little bit on film this year, it’s obvious,” Smith said.
“It’ll humble us for us to come out and play against these guys.”
Converting Defense To Offense
Since the Buckeyes’ Jan. 10 loss to Illinois, the one word that has constantly been heard out of players’ and coaches’ mouths is “defense.” And while the OSU defense has certainly been improved, it has also lead to an increase in offense.
In their two games since that loss to the Fighting Illini, the Buckeyes have forced a combined 44 turnovers and have converted them into a total of 42 points. Matta gave some of the credit for his team’s penchant for creating offense off defense to the depth of his bench.
“I felt like if we had more depth, we could keep our intensity and our pressure at a higher level throughout the Big Ten season,” Matta said.
“We’ve been fortunate to get those guys a lot of minutes throughout the course of the season.”
One of the players that has managed to crack Matta’s rotation is freshman forward Sam Thompson, who’s still getting used to his new role at the college level.
“I haven’t been on a team where I’m trying to find minutes in a number of years. I was kind of the man in high school,” Thompson said.
“Just continue to work hard in practice, before and after practice with the coaching staff. Just the jump shot, the ball handling, watch more film so I can know more about the game.”
Dunk Of The Year?
One of the thing’s that Matta’s trust in Thompson has given him is a dunk of the year nomination for his one-handed alley-oop catch off of an inbounds play at Indiana on Jan. 31. Despite the hoopla surrounding the play, Smith wasn’t all that impressed.
“It was nice,” Smith said with a smile.
“I’ll give it a 9-and-a-half, maybe. It gave juice to the team, so I’ll give him that.”
The freshman from Illinois said that he still hears about the dunk on campus and that’s enough for him to consider himself the Buckeyes’ best high-flyer.
“Every once and a while someone will tweet me about the dunk,” Thompson said.
“I’m the best dunker on the team, I’m going to go out on a limb and say it. I’m No. 1, J.D. (Weatherspoon)’s No. 2, and I’m going to give Lenzelle number No. 3.”
Of course, Lenzelle couldn’t agree with that.
“We’ll go out there right now and see who’s the best,” Smith said with a nudge to Thompson as the two exited the room.
Guess that’s an argument for another day.