Penn State Hoops Is Scorching Hot Entering Big Ten Tournament
A year removed from one of the program’s best runs ever in the Big Ten Tournament, the Penn State men’s basketball team is in need of a few miracles to continue its season.
The Nittany Lions finished the regular season with a 14-17 record, including a 7-13 mark in conference play. While on the surface the wins and losses are underwhelming, the blue and white have reeled off seven wins in their last 10 games after an 0-10 start in the Big Ten slate. Home upsets over No. 6 Michigan and No. 17 Maryland, three road wins, and a couple of BJC blowouts have given fans a chance to watch the Penn State team many expected to see after last year’s NIT title and a school record 26 wins.
Instead, the Nittany Lions will likely be left out of all the postseason tournaments, barring a major run this weekend. Their first round opponent, seven-seed Minnesota, was one of the six teams out of Penn State’s first 10 Big Ten losses that stole a close result from the struggling blue and white. Penn State was within five or fewer points in the final 90 seconds in all six of the aforementioned losses, including a one-point defeat to the Golden Gophers on the road.
This is a much different team from the one that was edged by Minnesota that time around, when Dupree McBrayer drilled a free throw with 2.7 seconds remaining to snag the victory. This team was able to close out in close wins of late (four of the seven victories were two-score games in the final 90 seconds), and is finally getting consistent contributions from the rotation.
“I said the record is not a reflection or indication of how hard we were playing, how hard we were competing,” Penn State head coach Pat Chambers said after Sunday’s win over Illinois. “We were so close in so many games and easily could’ve been flipped, 13-7 instead of 7-13.”
The major difference has been the improved play of Penn State’s young guards. Jamari Wheeler has turned into a legitimate floor general in his second year, while seeming poised to take over Josh Reaves’ helm as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. Rasir Bolton has thrived in his reserve role, bringing an entirely different style of play to the team when he’s on the floor. The freshman has averaged 12.4 points per game off the bench over the past 10 games.
Myles Dread has continued to fire from behind the arc, but more importantly he’s learned how to use his 6-foot-4 frame to provide more assistance on the boards and on defense. Even Myreon Jones has found his way back into the lineup at times recently, and he’s taken advantage of his chances. The first-year scorer has put up five or more points in all but one of the last seven games, reaching double digits twice.
The rising confidence of this group, as well as Mike Watkins gradually returning to his old form, are the reasons the team rallied in the last month of the season. It’s why this team realistically has a chance to still be alive in this tournament on Saturday.
While Minnesota, and if necessary Purdue in the quarterfinals, are both bound for the NCAA Tournament, Penn State should’ve and could’ve beaten both of these squads already this year. The Gophers don’t really have much that this hot Nittany Lions team doesn’t. Star forward Jordan Murphy is sure to be a problem, but Lamar Stevens is no slouch. Guards McBrayer and Amir Coffey are both below 32 percent from 3-point range, despite taking plenty of perimeter shots. Coffey is still a great scorer (16 points per game), but Wheeler and Reaves have had to face bigger challenges before.
Given the way John Harrar and Watkins have been playing over the last couple of weeks, it’s not hard to imagine them teaming up to have a good day against Murphy and Daniel Oturu. That matchup should come down to which group wins the foul trouble battle, as all four players have struggled with that issue all season.
The Gophers can spread the attack out well, with five players averaging nine or more points per game, but they don’t have a guy that can really take over the game an offense the way that Stevens (post-up), Purdue’s Carsen Edwards (shooting), or Michigan State’s Cassius Winston (floor general) can. Minnesota also isn’t very deep, playing only seven players in its first matchup with Penn State, and typically playing no more than eight guys in closely-competitive games. The most damning fact of all is that Minnesota has turned the ball over 21 more times than its opponents this year, despite owning a 19-12 record. There aren’t many tandems in the country that are better at forcing turnovers and disrupting ball-handlers than Reaves and Wheeler.
I think Penn State will knock off Minnesota, running into a very talented Purdue team for a third time this season. The Nittany Lions definitely did nothing to embarrass themselves in either meeting against the Boilermakers, playing a close game in West Lafayette a month ago and losing a controversial heartbreaker in overtime back at the end of January. Penn State probably should’ve won that home game, and Stevens definitely got some bad luck from the officiating crew (they have the 15th-worst luck in the country, according to KenPom).
However, this Purdue team is too strong with Edwards and Matt Haarms, and the Boilermakers have been a nemesis of Pat Chambers in the Big Ten Tournament. Purdue has eliminated Penn State in two out of the last four seasons, both times in the tournament semifinals. Maybe the shakeup in round can lead Penn State to an upset, but I wouldn’t expect the Nittany Lions to make it into the weekend without a near-perfect performance in Chicago on Friday.
This team has given us one of the weirder seasons to understand in recent program history, although it would be silly to expect anything but the unexpected from Penn State basketball. The same bunch that is the 40th-ranked team according to KenPom, with the 24th-best defense in the country, and winners of seven of their 10 games, is also the same team that is three games behind an even .500 record and has one of the three toughest schedules in the country. If the Nittany Lions can at least knock off Minnesota on Thursday, there’s a lot of momentum to build on entering next season.
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“As soon as his football skills are really sharp, Jayson’s going to be unstoppable.”
New Big Ten Network president Francois McGillicuddy announced Millen will return to the broadcast booth as an analyst during the 2019 college football season.
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