Gophers hope to slow Ohio State’s turnaround

by Michael Dougherty

The Ohio State men’s basketball team had as many Big Ten wins before Thanksgiving this season — one — than they did all of last season.
Thanks to a scheduling quirk that forced the Penn State game to be played at the new Value City Arena on Nov. 20, the Buckeyes jumped out to an early lead in the conference standings with a 70-62 win.
Ohio State went 1-15 in the Big Ten last year and 8-22 overall. But this year finds the Buckeyes the exact opposite of last year’s squad as the 17th-ranked Gophers (12-3, 3-2 in the Big Ten) travel to Columbus for Saturday’s 11 a.m. game.
Ohio State is 14-5 (4-2 in the Big Ten) and ranked 24th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. The Buckeyes dropped out of The Associated Press Top 25 rankings after dropping games at Michigan and home against No. 14 Iowa.
But after spanking 16th-ranked Purdue 72-43 at home on Tuesday night, Ohio State is a lock for a return trip to the rankings.
Last season’s campaign was head coach Jim O’Brien’s first with the Buckeyes. He came to Ohio State after 11 seasons with Boston College. But it wasn’t only O’Brien’s experience at Boston College he brought with him that is helping the Buckeyes improve. He also brought with him a 5′ 10″ point guard named Scoonie Penn who is making the difference.
Penn played for O’Brien at Boston College for two years before transferring when O’Brien took the Buckeyes job. In his two years with the Eagles, Penn averaged more than 13 points per game and was a first-team All-Big East player.
This year Penn is averaging almost 16 points and 4.5 assists per game. But more importantly, he is taking some much-needed attention away from Buckeyes leading scorer Michael Redd.
“It’s definitely the addition of Penn,” Gophers point guard Kevin Nathaniel said of the Buckeye’s improvement. “He really helps them go by pushing the ball up the court, and he actually relieves some of the pressure off of Redd.
“Last year Redd had all the pressure put on him, but now Penn takes the pressure off and makes things more difficult for us.”
Redd led the conference in scoring last season as a freshman with a 21.9 average. But Penn’s emergence has improved both Redd’s and the teams’ play.
“There’s a perception of Redd that he’s a good player who scored a lot of points on a bad team,” O’Brien said.
This year, however, Redd is showing otherwise. While his scoring average has dipped to 19.3, his minutes per game has dropped from 38 last year to 31 this year, and his shooting percentage has gone up from 43 percent to 47 percent.
“When you have a guy like Redd you can win a lot of games,” Gophers coach Clem Haskins said. “And the big people up front are playing well. (Jason) Singleton is in his fourth year, and they have some size, strength and experience to go with a guy in the backcourt like Scoonie Penn.
“It’s all about knowing the system and understanding what the coach wants. So, that’s why they are playing so well — it’s Scoonie Penn. And also Coach O’Brien has done a wonderful job with the players they have.”
Singleton represents what little inside presence the Buckeyes have. But his six points and six rebounds per game are not enough for O’Brien to rely on. Thus, Ohio State sticks to a perimeter-based offense with net scorchers like Redd and Penn.
Nathaniel, meanwhile, is gearing up for a second straight game of defending outstanding backcourt duos.
“It never lets up in the Big Ten,” Nathaniel said. “Every team has good guards, but some just don’t get as much hype as Reid and Bullock or Penn and Redd. We just have to prepare and do our best to shut them down.”