Basketball Preview: Penn State vs. Minnesota
Sometimes it only takes one win.
Penn State finally notched a victory on Saturday against Rutgers after an 0-6 start in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions (13-7, 1-6 Big Ten) are no strangers to slow starts, as the 2013-2014 started with an identical losing streak before going on a three-game winning streak and closing out the schedule 6-6. This year’s squad has already put itself in a better position record-wise with a strong 12-1 start in non-conference play.
“We always say ‘run through the line’ when we’re doing our running,” head coach Pat Chambers said. “Typically we get better in February for whatever reason, maybe its confidence, maybe it’s we realize we can play with these guys now. So we just got to keep getting better, be the best team we can be by the end of the year.”
The Lions hope to treat Rutgers as a launching pad as they move on to tonight’s matchup against Minnesota. The Gophers (13-8, 2-6 Big Ten), have also struggled through the gauntlet of the Big Ten, but are coming off of an impressive victory against Illinois. Minnesota features one of the hottest scorers in the conference right now in Andre Hollins.
The Enemy (is Everywhere)
Minnesota entered conference play as one of the highest-scoring squads in the Big Ten. Though its scoring has decreased considerably — as is expected in the defense-focused Big Ten — Hollins has proved himself as a high volume scorer at the two-guard spot. Hollins has scored 80 points in his last three games (26.7 points per game). Minnesota is 2-1 during Hollins’ hot streak.
The Gophers have also received big contributions from guard Carlos Morris (13.0 ppg) and big man Maurice Walker (12.0 ppg). Standing at 6-foot-10, Walker is also one of the top rebounders in the conference (6.7 rebounds per game).
Walker has really burst onto the scene for the Gophers this season as a senior. His postgame will challenge Penn State’s frontcourt, but improved depth with recent contributions from reserve Julian Moore should help the Lions against the Toronto native.
Despite Minnesota’s recent success, the Gophers have not won on the road since Dec. 2 when they beat Wake Forest in Winston-Salem.
How to Make Them Disappear Completely
Penn State played a nearly flawless game on both ends of the court to take Rutgers out of contention early. Chambers has been sticking with a smaller, quicker lineup, which has started games off better. Geno Thorpe is turning into a fast break machine with some lockdown defense that’s getting the Lions going the other way. Shep Garner settled in after a slight rough patch, with 13 points in the last contest and D.J. Newbill’s game goes without a lot of explanation (22.0 points per game, tops in the Big Ten and fifth nationally).
The Lions will also need continued contributions from a couple of bench players that have stepped up lately. Devin Foster, the JUCO transfer who started buzzing with a couple of big plays against Michigan State, showed what he could do against Rutgers with some solid passing and pushing the ball on the fast break. Moore was active on the glass finishing with five rebounds. Penn State has struggled with foul trouble all season and benefits from this added depth.
“I like the smaller lineup and I like the rotation,” Chambers said. “[I’m] getting more comfortable with bringing guys off the bench and they have a good understanding of when they’re going in now too.”
KenPom Game Prep
I think Penn State pulls another one out at home and can once again win in convincing fashion. Though I doubt it dominates in the way it did against Rutgers, Penn State should carry some momentum from last game.
The Lions will likely need a stronger than usual offensive performance from Ross Travis, one of the worst free-throw shooting percentage in the country with a minimum of 10 attempts. Fellow starting forward Brandon Taylor went down with a knee injury against Rutgers and though he is expected to play, he could be limited.
A win tonight can spark things for the Lions who appear to have a legitimate shot to win in three of their next four games.
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