Know Your Enemy: Penn State Hoops vs. No. 5 Michigan State
Penn State men’s basketball was down and out just a week ago, en route to a season that could fairly be described as a wasted opportunity. However, following back-to-back wins, including its road upset of No. 13 Ohio State via a Tony Carr buzzer beater, the program is soaring on momentum.
Josh Reaves was suspended with no return timetable set, Tony Carr was coming out of the worst shooting spell of his young career, and Pat Chambers was practically sitting on an oven of a hot seat. Yet, after overcoming those struggles, here the Nittany Lions are — living off hope while preparing to play the national title contenders.
The Spartans (20-3, 8-2 Big Ten) own a 37-8 advantage all-time against Penn State, including a 22-1 record at home. The lone win for the Nittany Lions came against a ninth-ranked Spartans team back in the 2008-09 season.
Zeroing In On Michigan State
The only losses for Tom Izzo’s squad this season have all come at the hands of ranked opponents – neutral site against Duke, at Ohio State, and in East Lansing to Michigan. On the other hand, the Spartans have taken down teams such as North Carolina, UConn, and Notre Dame. Like Penn State, all five of Michigan State’s starters are averaging double-digit scoring outputs every night.
Looking at the roster, the Spartans are absolutely loaded, as always. Two of their starters, sophomore ‘point forward’ Miles Bridges and freshman big man Jaren Jackson, are among ESPN‘s top eight prospects for the 2018 NBA Draft.
Bridges, the 2016-17 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, is leading the team with 17.6 points per game, in addition to contributing 7.3 rebounds a night. Meanwhile, the 6-foot-11, 242-pound Jackson is perfecting his inside out game. The freshman is shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc, and 80 percent from the free throw line.
However, the secret weapon that gets overlooked is Nick Ward. The forward is currently the leading rebounder on the team, while slotting into second in the scoring column. The sophomore is averaging 13.7 points and 7.9 rebounds per contest, adding on to his freshman campaign that saw Ward be named to the All-Big Ten honorable mention team.
This team has size and depth everywhere, something the Nittany Lions are not known for. The Spartans lead the Big Ten in both offensive (51.7) and defensive (35.6) field goal percentage, in addition to leading the conference in rebounding, assists, blocked shots, and turnover margin.
The Nittany Lions were unable to take advantage of a down-year for Izzo’s team (that included a January loss to Penn State), as they had their season ended by the Spartans last year in a 78-51 thrashing in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Michigan State ran out to a big first-half lead, taking a 45-28 advantage to the break. Bridges and Ward each tallied 15 points and nine rebounds each for the Spartans, while six other players scored four points or more. Carr and Lamar Stevens were the only Penn State players to reach double figures, with each of them scoring 16 in the loss.
It’s hard to imagine Penn State is in this game unless Mike Watkins is out of foul trouble and putting up ridiculous numbers. Over a five-game stretch in January, Big Mike was averaging a gaudy 17 points and 14.4 rebounds per game, a stat line that must be repeated if the Nittany Lions want to pull out their second road upset of a ranked team in the last week.
If that happens, the Nittany Lions do have a chance. Josh Reaves’ return makes Penn State’s best five players as good as just about any other Big Ten team, but the bench will make or break Pat Chambers’ team on Wednesday night.
The Nittany Lions should be able to avoid a setback blowout and hang around for a while, before eventually falling to the more talented Spartans late in the game.
Michigan State 75, Penn State 67
Penn State tips off in East Lansing at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. The game will be aired on BTN.
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