Basketball Preview: Penn State vs. Virginia Tech
At 7:15 p.m. tonight, the Nittany Lions will take on Virginia Tech Hokies. All eyes will be on star senior DJ Newbill, playing against the man in Buzz Williams, who in a different timeline would have been his head coach at Marquette. The ACC-Big Ten Challenge opponents have not played each other since 2010, when Talor Battle put up 26 points in a 79-69 PSU loss in Blacksburg.
The biggest thing about Virginia Tech is that it shoots the lights out of the ball. As a team, it’s ninth in the nation in effective field goal percentage and shoots an absurd 45.5 percent from three, good for fifth in the nation. The Nittany Lions have struggled to guard the deep ball this year, which you probably noticed every time #PSUBasketball twitter collectively tweets “FUCK” six times per game. Opponents have shot 36.3 percent from outside against Penn State, and the Lions need to be better about switching on-ball screens and not over-helping when players drive to kick.
Virginia Tech is led by three major players. Justin Bibbs, a 6-foot-5 freshman from Florida, has been playing like his hair is on fire. He’s 19th in the nation in effective field goal percentage, 23rd in true shooting percentage, and is shooting a cool 70.6 percent from beyond the arc. However, he has a 31.1 turnover rate, and Penn State has an above-average steal rate and defensive efficiency number.
Junior guard Adam Smith has been one of the most efficient players in the country early on and joins Bibbs in putting up gaudy stats. He’s 26th and 53rd in eFG% and TS%, respectively, but has a very low 9.9 turnover rate. Stopping those two on the perimeter along with sophomore Devin Wilson, who is 33rd in the nation in assist rate, will be huge. Newbill, Geno Thorpe, Shep Garner, and Brandon Taylor will have their work cut out for them.
Those two being so dangerous from the outside has Joey van Zegeren, the 6-foot-10 junior center, with plenty of room to maneuver down low. Van Zegeren is 52nd in the nation in offensive rebounding, and Penn State has not exactly been able to stop teams from eating up offensive glass, as it’s 250th in offensive rebounding percentage against. He’s also 44th in block percentage at 9.7 percent, and has finished at the rim at an 83.3 percent clip.
Penn State has done a good job stopping players at the rim, thankfully, ranking 17th in the nation defending shots inside the arc. The matchup between van Zegeren and Jordan Dickerson (and Donovon Jack to an extent) will be massive in this game. Dickerson is a similarly elite shot blocker, with a 9.4 percent rate that puts him in the top-50 nationally. His rebounding has improved somewhat from last year, but he has yet to take a major leap there. His strengths and weaknesses are the essentially the same as they’ve been, save for his difficulty in putting up points this year. This’ll be a serious test for a somewhat beleagured Penn State frontcourt, who will probably need help defensively from Ross Travis.
The keys for Penn State will be doing what it’s done well all year, plus a little more. Shooting threes, feeding Newbill, and preventing easy twos are obvious, but not getting off to a slow start is key. The Lions have consistently fell behind in the first few minutes, and while comeback wins are fun, playing from behind should not be the goal. The Nittany Lions are top-50 in adjusted offensive efficiency, and above-average in defensive efficiency. The Hokies are one of the most turnover-prone teams in the country, are a mediocre rebounding team outside of van Zegeren, and are just about the worst teams in the country at shooting free throws. Taking advantage of those weaknesses and hitting on its own strengths will be the recipe for a Penn State win. Despite its coach’s reputation, this Virginia Tech team is not very good. They have two shooters, a drive-and-kick point guard, and a center. However, that is all they have, and all of those players have their warts. Virginia Tech’s numbers are inflated by the fact that they haven’t played anyone of note, either.
KenPom predicts a 75-66 Penn State win, and gives Virginia Tech just an 18 percent chance to take this. However, I think it will end up a bit closer than that, as Penn State will struggle a bit to guard the three ball early on, with an 84-79 win at home putting the Lions at a comfortable 7-1.