Big Ten Insider: Claxton’s injury derails Penn State

James Graham

Penn State (12-12, 4-8 Big Ten) had been rolling before forward Geary Claxton went down with a season-ending ACL tear against Wisconsin on Jan. 15.

Heading into the game, the Nittany Lions had won seven of eight, led by Claxton’s strong inside presence. The star forward had racked up four straight doubles-doubles and was averaging 18.7 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, both second in the Big Ten.

Early in the first half, Claxton got tangled up with Badgers’ center Brian Butch while going up for an offensive rebound and came down awkwardly on his left knee.

The injury put an end to one of the most successful careers in Penn State history and severely crippled a once-promising season for the Lions.

Penn State lost eight of its next nine games and dropped near the bottom of the conference standings.

Yet Claxton’s injury could have a silver lining for the young Lions. The team has been forced to rely heavily on its underclassmen, most notably freshman guard Talor Battle and redshirt sophomores D.J. Jackson and Andrew Jones III, who continue to improve with increased playing time.

“Those kids are going to play and gain more experience,” coach Ed DeChellis said. “They’ll have a year of starting and some good minutes under their belt … hopefully that’ll pay off for us.”

While some of the team may be looking to next season, Penn State can still be a factor this year. Its Feb. 2 upset of then-No. 7 Michigan State could have major implications in the conference and, with three of its last six games coming against ranked teams, the Lions have the chance to shake up the Big Ten.

Bucking a trend

In recent years, Ohio State has emerged as one of the Big Ten’s preeminent teams. The Buckeyes are two-time defending conference champions and capped last season with a surprising run to the NCAA finals. But high expectations can have their downside.

The Ohio State teams of the past two years built their reputations on being the underdog. Critics said they were either too inexperienced or lacked depth, comments that strengthened the team’s resolve.

But this year, with the loss of star freshmen Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. to the NBA and increased scrutiny from opposing teams, Ohio State has struggled to replicate its recent success.

The inexperience that defined last year’s squad has been this season’s Achilles’ heel. Senior Jamar Butler has led the young team, averaging 14.2 points per game, but has disappeared in big games. Highly touted freshman Kosta Koufos has been solid, but hardly the game-changer the Buckeyes need.

While Ohio State (17-9, 8-5) remains near the top of the Big Ten, its play has been inconsistent and it is 0-6 against ranked opponents. Last week’s defeat to Michigan hurt the Buckeyes’ shot at an NCAA tournament berth.

Despite their problems, the Buckeyes have shown flashes of potential recently. In his last three games, Koufos has averaged 17.3 points and 10.3 rebounds, and freshman guard Evan Turner has logged quality minutes.

“We’re going to have some struggles,” coach Thad Matta said. “But Koufos is playing better than at the beginning of the year and as long we continue to play hard we’ll be OK.”

While many will consider this season a disappointment, it could pay dividends next year. With the added experience and one of the nation’s best 2008 recruiting classes, the Buckeyes have set themselves up as one of next year’s team to beat.

Notes

Michigan freshman Manny Harris was named this week’s Big Ten Player of the Week … The Big Ten surpassed two million fans for an NCAA-best 16th-straight season … The conference has four teams ranked in the AP top 20 (No. 10 Wisconsin, No. 14 Indiana, No. 15 Purdue and No. 19 Michigan State) … The Big Ten remains sixth among conferences in RPI.

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