Penn State capped off a pretty good regular season on Sunday by beating Illinois in double-overtime to improve its record to 16-15. That record wouldn't be considered great for many Big Ten teams, but it's definitely a positive sign for the Nittany Lions, who are clearly in the midst of a rebuild.
One positive from the Nittany Lions season is that they will have a bye in the Big Ten Tournament, a luxury they haven't had the past couple of seasons. But one negative is that they'll face a tough first round opponent in Ohio State. The Buckeyes beat Penn State, 66-46, on Jan. 25.
Last season, Penn State finished a frustrating season on a good note, winning two games in the conference tournament against Nebraska and Iowa before losing to Purdue in the quarterfinals. While the Lions will only need to win one game to reach the quarters this season, its going to be a challenge. The Buckeyes are 5-2 in their last seven games (both losses came to Michigan State) and have their eyes set on the NCAA Tournament. Still, you can't rule out an upset for Penn State, which has beaten Indiana and Iowa this season.
The last time the Nittany Lions played Ohio State, they shot terribly, making just 33 percent of their shots from the field, 16 percent from behind the and attempting just five free throws (making two). Point guard Shep Garner (1-of-9, three points) had a particularly bad game, top scorer Brandon Taylor (5-of-16, 11 points, two rebounds) was just okay and key freshman Josh Reaves sat out with a case of mono. Safe to say, the Lions can't afford to have any of those things happen again.
But the Buckeyes won't be at full strength either, as forward Jae'Sean Tate, who scored 15 points in the last matchup and is Ohio State's third-leading scorer this season, is out for the year with a shoulder injury. He'll continue to be missed, but the Buckeyes still have a solid cast led by Marc Loving, Keita Bates-Diop and JaQuan Lyle. Bates-Diop was especially effective the last time the two teams played, scoring 22 points and grabbing eight rebounds. The Buckeyes also shot well that game, hitting 46 percent from the field, 42 percent from three and 71 percent from the foul line.
In the Lions two biggest upsets this season, they got good games from their two main catalysts, Taylor and Garner, while also getting one big performance from a role player. Against Indiana it was reserve guard Devin Foster (13 points) while forward Donovon Jack had a huge game against Iowa (19 points, five rebounds). Penn State will likely need a similar formula to win again. They just don't have enough scorers to survive against good teams when Taylor and Garner aren't making shots. Still, the absence of Tate should give them a chance.
A win against Ohio State would pit Penn State against Michigan State in the quarterfinals. That would be an incredibly challenging test for the Lions, but one they are definitely hoping they get. A win over the Buckeyes gives the Lions a good chance to make the NIT, something that would be big for the program. Expect Patrick Chambers and company to be ready for a competitive game.