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Previewing The Hoops And Hockey Big Ten Super Saturday

It’s time to get ready for the brightest lights and biggest stage because in 24 hours, Penn State men’s hockey and basketball travel to Madison Square Garden — arguably the most iconic arena in sports — for Saturday’s Big Ten doubleheader against Michigan. The stakes will be high (for hockey at least), and the atmosphere will be vibrant. We broke down everything you need to know for Saturday’s action.

Penn State Basketball (11-10, 2-6 Big Ten) vs. Michigan (16-5, 6-2 Big Ten)

By David Abruzzese

Before we dive into the pending matchup, it’s important to acknowledge the fact that this isn’t Penn State’s first rodeo on the hardwood at Madison Square Garden. Lest we forget, Penn State basketball accomplished arguably its most important program achievement in recent memory after taking down Baylor in a shootout to capture the 2009 NIT crown. Sure, it’s not March Madness glory, but it’s not bad in its own right. Ask any Penn State fan in attendance that night about their experience, and they’ll tell you what occurred in the Garden was nothing short of sheer magic.

The best student section in the country was out in full force to watch Penn State capture the 2009 NIT crown. (via Ryan Jones/ Penn Stater Magazine)
The best student section in the country was out in full force to watch Penn State capture the 2009 NIT crown (via Ryan Jones/ Penn Stater Magazine).

Down 29-25 at halftime, the Lions — who finished that season 27-11 — quickly erased the deficit behind Jamelle Cornley’s 18 point night, late three pointers, and boisterous “We Are” chants led by Joe Paterno echoing throughout the arena’s hallowed halls. Penn State would go on to win 69-63 — capturing its first postseason title since winning the Atlantic 10 Championship in 1991.

While it’s fun to reminisce, we’re here to discuss present matters. The 2015-16 Nittany Lions currently have 11 total victories on the year, and need desperately need a conference victory after two consecutive losses — the most recent being a 20 point blowout on the road at Ohio State.

The Nittany Lions are undoubtedly talented, but lack consistency in the most crucial areas. The team is shooting roughly 30 percent from beyond the arc, and isn’t getting much help from its sharpshooters aside from Brandon Taylor. The most concerning development is easily Shep Garner’s disastrous slump. The fearless marksman affectionately referred to as “Sh3p” shot 21 three pointers over the last five games — he connected on just four of them. Shots the talented sophomore usually hits aren’t falling.

On the bright side, Taylor’s production remains somewhat constant as the senior steadies the ship with a team-leading 16 points per game. He managed to keep future NBA lottery pick Nigel Hayes of Wisconsin somewhat in check, holding him two points below his season average of 17. He, along with Penn State’s backcourt, are in for a similar challenge with star Michigan guard Caris LeVert — that is, if he plays.

LeVert’s remained sidelined since injuring his ankle against Illinois on Dec. 30, and although Wolverines coach John Beilein hasn’t indicated a set return, it’s entirely possible LeVert plays against the Lions — albeit in limited capacity. Then again, Beilein might be thinking ahead to his team’s Feb. 2 showdown with No. 19 Indiana in Ann Arbor, meaning he’d save his star swingman rather than risk any further injury.

Penn State big men Jordan Dickerson and Julian Moore will surely have their hands full with 6-foot-9 bruiser Mark Donnal, who averages 7.2 ppg and 3.8 rpg. He’s no Mitch McGary, but he’s no scrub either. Winning the war down low should be high on Pat Chambers’ priority list if his team wants to leave New York City with a victory.

All in all, Penn State basketball has the unique opportunity to play basketball on the same court as legends past and present. Make no mistake — Saturday’s afternoon cap will be special no matter the outcome.

No. 15 Penn State Hockey (16-6-3, 6-3-0 Big Ten) vs. No. 6 Michigan (15-3-4, 6-1-2 Big Ten)

By Doug Leeson

Boy am I glad I waited until Friday morning to write this.

Before the series started, I predicted a split. Penn State would have the advantage in front of a White Out crowd (with the support of the Blue Band) in Pegula Ice Arena, and I thought that would give the Nittany Lions an edge in what should be an even matchup. Nope. Tyler Motte scored two goals and added three assists en route to a 7-4 stomping, proving why Michigan is ranked No. 6 and why its top line is the best in the country.

I haven’t watched any Quinnipiac, North Dakota, St. Cloud State, Providence, or Boston College games this year, but the thought that five teams were voted as better than the Wolverines is scary. Thursday night’s action wasn’t enigmatic — Michigan’s forwards consistently made plays that Penn State simply doesn’t have the stick-handling ability to pull off.

Of course, what Michigan did was just one way to win a game. Guy Gadowsky doesn’t want his team’s identity to be “skate fast, deke the defender, get open, and snipe the goalie.” He, the team, and the fans know how they win — physical play and a high shot count. Wolverine goalie Steve Racine made 46 saves on 50 shots on Thursday, while plenty more could have gotten by. Michigan has won a few games this year by torching the opposition on the ice, but the Nittany Lions proved they could keep up. It didn’t look like it, and it sure didn’t feel like it, but Penn State was a few missed plays away from a much closer game.

For those reasons, Saturday’s game could (and hopefully will) be more even. An angry Penn State team out for payback already proved it can keep up with Michigan, and the New York City atmosphere will only raise the stakes. If Gadowsky stays true to the formula he’s followed all season, Matt Skoff (who started in net on Thursday) will sit while Eamon McAdam gets the start this weekend. McAdam has been the better goaltender statistically this year, and the New York Islanders’ draft pick will get to show what he can do on the home ice of his rival Rangers.

Michigan is the more talented team of the two, based on Thursday. But it isn’t so much better that Penn State can’t steal a game on Saturday, force a split in Ann Arbor in March, and roll the dice in a seemingly looming Big Ten Tournament matchup. Michigan has the momentum leading into the weekend, but Penn State doesn’t let itself get run twice in one week. Buckle up for what is arguably the biggest game in the Nittany Lions’ short program history.

I was fortunate enough to cover the Frozen Apple last year when Penn State took on Cornell in Madison Square Garden, and I’ll be there again on Saturday. Fans, if you’re heading to NYC for the game, you’re in for a treat.

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