After Michigan State’s 79-63 throttling of Penn State at the beginning of conference play, it looked like the two teams would follow their usual trajectories: the Spartans (19-3, 8-1) would roll through the conference en route to a top three finish, while the Nittany Lions (12-10, 3-6) would end up in the Big Ten cellar.
However, the two teams have been on opposite trajectories recently. Penn State has won its last three games — the longest active streak in the Big Ten — while Michigan State has lost two of its last three, partly do to the loss of its two leading rebounders, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson.
In Penn State’s last two match-ups against the Spartans, Payne and Dawson have been the difference. When the two teams met up last season in Happy Valley, Payne scored 20 points and pulled down 7 rebounds despite only playing in the second half of the game. Earlier this season, Dawson went for 20 points and 9 rebounds.
Luckily for the Lions, Dawson — who is the team’s top defender and rebounder despite being 6’6″ tall — is out after suffering a hand injury in January, while Payne has missed the last seven games due to plantar fasciitis. While the Spartans’ star center will return for the game, it will likely be in a limited role.
This bodes well for Penn State, especially Donovon Jack and Jordan Dickerson. The two big men won’t have to deal with arguably the Big Ten’s best center, but rather a depleted frontcourt that has struggled in the last three games. The other person who should benefit from this is Ross Travis. While he has seen a recent decline in his minutes, look for him to take advantage of a Dawson-less Spartan team, as Dawson is essentially Michigan State’s version of Travis.
However, the game’s main matchup will be in the backcourt. The two best backcourts in the Big Ten are, in some order, Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill of Penn State and Keith Appling and Gary Harris of Michigan State. While the two duos were fairly evenly matched up when the two teams faced off in December, Appling and Harris got the win.
Harris is the conference’s leading scorer, and he and Appling are combining to average 33.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 7.6 assists. Meanwhile, Frazier and Newbill combine to average 33.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 8.4 rebounds per game. Even in terms of playing styles, the duos are eerily similar: Frazier and Appling are dynamic scorers who are excellent passers, while Newbill and Harris are big, physical shooting guards who are great rebounders. Even if you’re just a casual basketball fan, the guard matchup is worth tuning in and salivating over.
As is the case with any team looking to pull a road upset, Penn State will need to knock down shots from the perimeter. This has been one of the team’s biggest issues this season, as the Nittany Lions are hitting 32.8 percent of its threes, which is 10th in the conference. Even during the team’s recent winning streak, the Nittany Lions have only shot 28.8 percent from three.
However, Penn State has yet to face a team as good and as disciplined as Michigan State. The Spartan trademarks during the Tom Izzo era have been defense and outworking any opponent. It knows that Penn State needs to get guys like Brandon Taylor and John Johnson hot from downtown, which is why Michigan State’s gameplan will likely revolve around taking away Penn State’s ability to hit shots from down entirely.
While the Spartans are depleted, it is still the best team in the conference, and one of the best teams in America. Between that, the fact that the Breslin Center is one of the most intimidating venues in country, and that Izzo is one of the greatest coaches ever, it’s hard to see the Nittany Lions leaving East Lansing with a win.
Prediction: Michigan State 71, Penn State 60