Ohio State tips-off the Big Ten basketball season on Thursday against Penn State at Value City Arena (8 p.m., ESPN Plus).
The No. 18 Buckeyes (10-0) are coming off a thrilling 78-76 comeback victory over visiting LSU on Dec. 31. Senior forward Matt Sylvester buried a 3-pointer with 5.5 seconds remaining for the winning points.
The Nittany Lions (8-3) defeated Mount St. Mary’s, 65-53, on Dec. 31 for their fourth consecutive win.
Penn State’s top player is sophomore Geary Claxton who averages 14.8 points and 6.5 rebounds. Columbus Brookhaven product Jamelle Cornley is second on the team in scoring at 12.3 per game.
Penn State’s best player from last season – forward Aaron Johnson – transferred to New Mexico following the 2004-05 season. Johnson averaged 11.8 points and 9.9 rebounds per game last year.
It should be an interesting race for the Big Ten championship this season. Michigan State is the early favorite, but will have plenty of competition. Ohio State coach Thad Matta is not sure where the Buckeyes will stack up in the Big Ten.
“Well, it’s one of those deals that I don’t put a lot of stock in what other teams are doing,” he said. “Obviously Indiana getting the win over Michigan (on Tuesday) is a huge win. I think the Big Ten race is wide open, I really do. You can see probably about six or seven teams that will compete for the league championship. It’s all a matter of who gets on a roll and who is playing well.”
The Buckeyes have put themselves in a good position by going undefeated thus far in non-conference play. (They have one more non-Big Ten game: Jan. 30 vs. Florida A&M.)
“I think our guys are excited,” Matta said. “As a team, they’ve done what we’ve asked them to do. They’ve taken care of business up to this point and now we shift into a whole new arena of conference play.”
Although the Big Ten season is now his primary focus, Matta reflected one last time on OSU’s 12-0 run to end the LSU game last Saturday.
“We realized our attention to detail with our team is vitally important,” he said. “We made some huge plays and Je’Kel Foster, I don’t think you could say enough. Down 10 and he deflects a pass so they can’t go up 12 on us. The guy would have had an uncontested layup. We end up hitting a three and cut it to seven, Terence grabbed some big rebounds. You look at that stretch and that’s what we need consistently.”
The 6-2 Foster has been nothing short of amazing this season. He is averaging a team-best 16.5 points and a Big Ten-best 2.7 steals. He also leads all guards nationally with a 65.4 percent field goal percentage and is third nationally in 3-point percentage (56.9).
“Yeah, Je’Kel, and I’ve said this before, is the poster child for college athletes,” Matta said. “When I say that, just his dedication of working hard, practicing hard every day and to see the improvement of what we asked him to get better at in the offseason, he’s just a hard kid. He’s a guy that every day he comes in and plays hard and that’s what you want as a coach.”
As he seems to do every year, center Terence Dials is hitting his stride at the start of the Big Ten season. He had a season-high 24 points in the win over LSU and is now averaging 14.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.
But possibly the most improved player on the team is someone who is not putting up big statistics. Sophomore forward Matt Terwilliger is only averaging 2.7 points and 1.4 rebounds per game, but has emerged as a solid backup to Dials. In fact, Matta even played Dials and the surprisingly-athletic Terwilliger together for a few minutes during the LSU game.
“He is (the most improved),” Matta said. “And Matt’s done a tremendous job of dedicating himself and playing more with a purpose this year. I’m very pleased with the progress he’s made and I think it all starts with how he practices.”
Other than the unblemished record, Matta was asked what he is the most pleased about as his team enters Big Ten play.
“I think we’re getting better at execution,” he said. “Our defensive awareness at times is very good and other times it’s not. I think that we need to be more aware of what’s getting ready to happen and get in position to take that away defensively.”
Matta is not even close to being satisfied with where the Buckeyes are at right now. Yes, they are 10-0, but Matta knows they could have lost a couple of those games.
“The number one thing that we need to do is keep the focus of getting better on a daily basis,” Matta said. “Not saying, ‘Hey, we’re sitting at 10-0, everything is great.’ One of the messages that I’ve talked to the team about is that we’ve shown on any given night someone can have a big game. What we need is guys that aren’t satisfied that we’re winning. They have a mindset that we’re going to get better and that’s been the big challenge since the LSU game, you know, it is a great atmosphere and guys are happy when we win, but we need guys to continue to step up and play our best basketball for us.”