UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- As he walked Thad Matta onto the court for the start of the game, the security guard leaned into the Ohio State coach’s ear.
“We’ll go out the back way when they rush the court,’’ he explained to Matta.
“So I said to my guys, you’re not going to believe this, but this guy just told me they’re going to storm the court,’’ Matta recounted.
The prediction here, by the security guard and the record crowd that packed the Bryce Jordan Center, was an upset of No. 1. And who really could blame the fans of a pedestrian Penn State team for thinking otherwise?
This is the season in which nothing is safe: not homecourt advantage, not a top ranking, not a seemingly secure spot on the No. 1 seed line.
Just last week, Duke assumed the mantle of the No. 1 ranking only to be court rushed by storming Virginia Tech fans who figured they had finally sewed up their NCAA hopes with the upset of the Blue Devils (and those same fans are back to chewing their nails now that the Hokies lost to Boston College).
In Louisville, a cheerleader was so excited that his Cardinals had beaten Big East-leading Pittsburgh that he grabbed the ball and hurled it toward the Yum Center rafters, putting Louisville’s victory in danger.
And at BYU, Jimmer Mania resurfaced anew after the Cougars topped San Diego State and earned some newfound respect with talk of a No. 1 seed. Three days later, starting center Brandon Davies was booted for violating the honor code and just like that the Cougars are presumed to be in trouble.
So who could blame the security guard for thinking ahead? He had the perfect storm -- senior night for the Lions’ all-everything guard Talor Battle, a chance to beat No. 1 and a chance to get to 9-8 in the Big Ten and at least start up some bubble talk.
One problem: No one planned on the Ohio State tsunami.
In a season in which no one wants to assert anything with much conviction, the Buckeyes certainly offered a definitive statement about their abilities in an 82-61 annihilation that wasn’t even as close as the 21-point difference would indicate.
The win assured Ohio State of at least a share of the Big Ten title, news the players greeted with the same enthusiasm they might greet news of an impending root canal.
“It’s like sharing your girlfriend or your husband,’’ freshman Jared Sullinger said. “You wouldn’t want to share your husband, would you? We don’t like to share.’’
If the greedy Buckeyes keep playing like this, they might not have to share anything for the rest of the season.
Critics might think Ohio State merely assumed the top ranking once again, a beneficiary of other teams’ mistakes. That, however, doesn’t give enough credit to the Buckeyes’ abilities.
What could make this team a hard out this month was in display in tenfold against the Lions. There is a natural tendency against Ohio State to pack in the inside thanks to the presence of Sullinger.
And that just means someone is waiting out on the wings.
This time it was Jon Diebler, who made his first 3-pointer at the 16:59 mark and his last with 2:38, all together connecting on an amazing 10-of-12 from beyond the arc. He didn’t even bother attempting a 2-point. Why would he?
“I think every shooter dreams of a night like that,’’ Diebler said. “It’s just hard to explain what it feels like.’’
Let Sullinger try.
“Freaking crazy,’’ he said. “I wish I could curse right now, because I don’t know how else to explain it.’’
Equally tough to explain was the absolute lackluster effort by Penn State. The game that was meant to serve as the Nittany Lions’ coming-out party instead will serve as its obit.
Barring an automatic bid, the Lions are out of the NCAA tournament, extending their dry spell to 10 years.
Battle, a player who will go down in history as perhaps the best to wear a Penn State uniform, was pulled from his last game in front of a half-full building to polite, but not raucous, applause.
“We didn’t practice well,’’ Battle said. “And we played like we practiced.’’
Meantime, Ohio State played like it was practice. The team that has been unbelievably relaxed, if not downright silly, has maintained both its confidence and its calm in what can be described as a turbulent season on the national front.
“It’s toughness,’’ Sullinger said. “We’re a tough team.’’
Some might put an asterisk to this game. The Lions aren’t Wisconsin or Purdue.
But in a season in which the frontrunners have been bullrushed, the only people rushing the court in this game were wearing Ohio State red. As the Penn State fans shuffled up the stairs and out the doors, it was the Buckeyes storming to the locker room, hooting and hollering the whole way.