The Buckeyes can secure at least a share of the conference crown with a 15th straight win over the Nittany Lions on Tuesday night at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Ohio State (27-2, 14-2) replaced Duke atop the rankings after winning twice last week. The Buckeyes were No. 1 for four weeks before a loss to Wisconsin on Feb. 12 led to them relinquishing the top spot.
“I tell our team all the time we want to be No. 1 at the end of the season,” coach Thad Matta said. “We want to be playing our best basketball in March. Moving to No. 1 is a tribute to how hard our guys have worked all year. We appreciate the recognition and our guys certainly deserve it.”
The Buckeyes won both their games last week despite a pair of subpar efforts from leading scorer Jared Sullinger. The freshman big man, averaging 17.4 points, was limited by early foul trouble against the Hoosiers and had five points in 12 minutes. He failed to make a field goal for the first time in his college career.
That followed a 12-point effort versus the Illini. Sullinger has scored 12 or fewer points in three of his last four games.
Ohio State leads the conference by one game over Purdue. The Buckeyes can clinch at least a share of the title with a win Tuesday or a Boilermakers loss to Illinois that evening. It would be their second straight conference championship and fourth in six years.
“It’s big for us; everyone wants a ring,” senior David Lighty said. “So hanging another banner up would be great.”
Although the Buckeyes have won five straight on the road over Penn State and 14 consecutive overall matchups, they have lost their last two games outside of Columbus. Penn State (15-12, 8-8) has also knocked off three ranked teams at home this season.
In addition, the Lions nearly picked up their first road victory of the season over a Top 25 foe at Ohio State’s expense Jan. 15, falling just short in a 69-66 loss. Sullinger completed a three-point play with 13.2 seconds left to lift the Buckeyes.
“They’ve got four seniors and obviously with Talor Battle, one of the best guards in the league,” said Matta, whose team faces a quick turnaround. ” … Obviously, with the game here (on Sunday afternoon) it’s going to be a tremendous challenge for us.”
With Sullinger struggling recently, Ohio State could have another fight on its hands against Penn State, winner of three of four. The Lions defeated Northwestern 66-52 on Thursday.
Penn State shot a season-high 56.5 percent and got 20 points from Jeff Brooks. That helped the Lions overcome a poor shooting game from Battle, who was 5 of 12 from the field and 1 of 6 from 3-point range for 13 points - 7.5 below his conference-leading average.
“We’re trying to build our (NCAA tournament) resume, just like a lot of other teams are trying to build their resumes,” Penn State coach Ed DeChellis said. “We have to put our best foot forward and try to continue to win games, and the next one just happens to be Ohio State.”
Pulling off the upset Tuesday might be difficult without a strong game from Battle, who also struggled against the Buckeyes in January, going 5 of 17 from the floor and 1 of 10 from beyond the arc.
Battle, however, has been outstanding at home recently, averaging 24.8 points and shooting 44.4 percent from 3-point range in his last six at the Bryce Jordan Center.
This will be the final home game for Battle, who is 60 points shy of breaking Penn State’s all-time scoring record. He needs six rebounds to become the third Division I player to amass 2,000 points, 600 rebounds and 500 assists in his career, joining Duke’s Danny Ferry and Maryland’s Greivis Vasquez.