NEW YORK CITY — There are some teams that just have another team’s number.
It’s pretty clear that phrase applies to Penn State and the No. 13 Ohio State men’s basketball team, given the Nittany Lions have now defeated the Buckeyes in all three games played between the two teams this season.
Once the defeat came in the form of a blowout. Twice now it has come in a late heartbreaker. Friday night, in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament, the Buckeyes were heartbroken on a dunk with three seconds remaining to end Ohio State’s tournament title hopes.
Penn State showed nothing new in the win against Ohio State. Nothing changed from how it won the past two games. Nothing needed to. Simply, Penn State has found the formula to beat the Buckeyes.
“The two things that we really struggle with with them is their collective athleticism and their guard play,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said. “That has been a hard thing for us to manage with that group. They’re talented. They’re athletic. They play well together and their guard play has been so — hopefully it will get us ready.”
Part of the blueprint to beating the Buckeyes is something that can’t be taught. Penn State guards Tony Carr and Josh Reaves stand an imposing 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-4, respectively, and could not be consistently guarded by the Buckeyes. Carr, in particular, was frequently able to take advantage of his size advantage over Ohio State guard C.J. Jackson, bullying his way to the basket or shaking loose to gain an open look from 3.
Ohio State from time to time deployed a strategy that did help to slow Carr down. Rather than just using Jackson to guard Carr, Holtmann would often place another player like sophomore center Micah Potter to double-team the Big Ten’s regular-season scoring leader.
The problem then became that Carr would use his passing to find the open man. It happened on the final play of the game. With Carr standing at the top of the key and redshirt senior guard Andrew Dakich defending him, he began to drive, which forced Jackson, who was covering Reaves at the time, to peel off his man and focus on Carr.
Reaves drove through to the basket uncontested, caught a hook pass over the two defenders from Carr and slammed home a dunk to end the game.
“I didn’t see how Reaves got open because obviously my head’s turned the other way,” Dakich said. “But if [Carr] didn’t throw it, he’s probably going to take that shot regardless. If Reaves was not open, that wide open, he’s going to take that shot.”
Ohio State’s inability to defend larger guards all season has been well documented. Jackson stands just 6-foot-1, Dakich is only 6-foot-2 and redshirt senior guard Kam Williams is 6-foot-2, meaning none are really tall enough to defend someone like Carr effectively. Throughout the game, Carr was able to just shoot overtop the smaller guards with relative ease, forcing more double teams and opening up chances for other players.
“He’s [6-foot-5] for a point guard,” Dakich said. “You know he can shoot over you and post up and obviously a fine cutter. I think that’s what makes him pretty good.”
Aside from the size advantage, the Nittany Lions also focused defensively on stopping redshirt junior forward Keita Bates-Diop by double-teaming the 2018 Big Ten Player of the Year throughout the first half. It worked for a while. He had just eight points in the first half on 3-for-8 shooting.
However, the Buckeyes broke the mold a little bit and were able to score without him. Early in the game, Bates-Diop drove to the basket, taking two defenders with him and passed back to a wide-open Williams, who drained a 3 to give Ohio State an 18-15 lead.
In the past, Ohio State has struggled to find production when Bates-Diop is not scoring. It seemed like that might be the case again, but Bates-Diop was able to frequently find the open man when double-teamed, which helped bring the score to just a 33-32 Penn State lead at halftime.
The Nittany Lions relaxed the defense on Bates-Diop in the second half, and he he racked up 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting, but they bodied up well and outrebounded a strong post team like Ohio State 39-33.
There were some positive takeaways for Ohio State in this game. It showed in the first half it can score enough when Bates-Diop is covered to give him chances later by loosening the defense for him. However, Ohio State still has no answer for defending tall guards. Carr finished with 25 points — he combined for 58 in the other two games — and Reaves had nine points.
The Buckeyes do not know who their next opponent will be. But if it is another team with large guards, Ohio State could be in trouble.
“I would just say we can focus on other teams, but we’ve got to really focus on ourselves,” Jackson said. “See on the film how we need to improve coming up before the NCAA Tournament because after that, if we lose, it’s over. We know that’s the end of the season, so we’ve got to be prepared for anything and just continue to keep working.”