Penn State Basketball’s Chances At The Big Ten Tournament
Headed into postseason play, Penn State holds a 19-12 overall record and the seventh seed in the Big Ten Tournament. After a big win at home against Ohio State, the team has struggled to improve its resume in its past few games. The Nittany Lions dropped a close one on the road to a top-five Purdue team before getting handled by both Michigan and Nebraska to close out the regular season.
Penn State clearly has the athletes to make some noise in March, but the road now may be more difficult than ever. As the Nittany Lions prepare to take on Northwestern in New York City on March 1, we look at what it will take for them to win the conference tourney and clinch an automatic bid to the dance.
Why They Can Win It
With the status of Mike Watkins unclear, Penn State must focus on its guard play. Coach Chambers said that Watkins’ injury does not require surgery, which is a good sign, but the team can’t assume he’ll be able to play. The Nittany Lions boast shooters all over the floor, with Tony Carr and Shep Garner both hitting over 40 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. Carr has earned numerous awards for his stellar play down the stretch of the season, and has shown he can take over games when he wants to.
Forward Josh Reaves has been one of the most underrated defenders in the Big Ten as well, averaging 2.4 steals per game. He has shown he can electrify crowds with his unbelievable vertical too, posterizing defenders at a moment’s notice. Reaves has taken the responsibility of guarding the competition’s best scorer, and for the most part he has succeeded. In recent games against Michigan and Ohio State, he held Charles Matthews and Keita Bates-Diop to zero and ten points, respectively.
As a whole, Penn State has five separate players who average double figures in scoring. The Nittany Lions have a bunch of guys who can step up, and despite Watkins being hurt, have the potential to rain shots from all over the floor. The team does need to revert to a smaller lineup, but that creates mismatches across the floor for opposing defenses. It may affect the Nittany Lions in rebounding at times, but opens lanes that weren’t there when Watkins was on the floor. Finally, Penn State has a favorable start to its schedule in the conference tournament. Penn State starts against Northwestern, and with a win, faces an Ohio State team in the quarterfinals that they already beat twice this season.
Why They Can’t Win It
On Sunday, 46 of Nebraska’s 76 points came from inside the paint. The absence of Mike Watkins really could end up hurting Penn State since it no longer has a rim protector or someone to dump the ball down to in pick-and-rolls. Julian Moore and Satchel Pierce are decent backups, but don’t have nearly the athleticism or shooting touch that Watkins does. Due to this, the Nittany Lions may be forced to rely heavily on guard play, which has been inconsistent at times outside of Carr. They only scored 17 points on the road in the first half against Nebraska, and can’t just turn to Tony Carr every time something goes wrong.
Outside of the starting five, Penn State really doesn’t have anyone that contributes much offensively. Guards Jamari Wheeler and Nazeer Bostick provide great defense off the bench, but if a starter gets in foul trouble, the offense could stall. Besides the starting five, no player averages more than five points per game. As far as big men go, neither Pierce nor Moore averages more than two. It will be difficult for the Nittany Lions to counter a team like Purdue later in the tournament that has two seven-foot scorers to deploy.
Watkins was fifth in the nation in field goal percentage at 68.5 percent, and gave Penn State great all-around play when they won six of seven games in February. Now the Nittany Lions enter the toughest stretch of the year, where any win is hard to come by during a season filled with imbalance. But as an inexperienced team probably needing to advance to the final round of the tournament, it may be too tall an order for Penn State. But after all, we’re about to enter the month of March, where we know truly anything can happen in college basketball.