No. 20 Penn State Hoops In Need Of Bouncing Back Against Streaking No. 16 Michigan State
Tuesday night will be a historic night for No. 20 Penn State men’s basketball in more than a few ways.
The Nittany Lions find themselves in an unfamiliar position as the regular season winds down: They’re nationally ranked in March and entering a toss-up game with a blue-blood Big Ten foe, No. 16 Michigan State. The blue and white are still in the position to earn a double-bye in the conference tournament and should enter their first NCAA Tournament in nine years as a four or five seed, barring complete and utter chaos.
One of the most decorated players to ever suit up for Penn State, Lamar Stevens, will play his final home game at the Bryce Jordan Center. Mike Watkins, an 82-game starter for Pat Chambers, will also take the floor for the last time in Happy Valley, alongside three other seniors.
All of that aside, Penn State is starving for a big win to help build some momentum entering postseason play. This season has changed the direction of the program drastically and will be seen as a success regardless of how the team finishes. But with an eight-game winning streak earlier this season in college basketball’s most competitive conference, proof exists that this group is capable of more than just being a feel-good story once the NCAA Tournament begins.
“Going back to the eight-game winning streak, we were playing at an elite level,” Chambers said at his weekly press conference on Monday. “Now it’s ‘Can we get to that level again, and get a little bit better, and take that next step, and punch through.'”
The Nittany Lions haven’t looked like that red-hot team recently, losing three of their last four games. Additionally, they were fairly lucky to hold onto their one win over Rutgers after their 17-point lead evaporated in the closing minutes.
The Big Ten has finally figured out how to expose Penn State without its second-leading scorer, Myreon Jones, who missed six games with an undisclosed illness following the win at Michigan State before returning to the lineup in the loss to Iowa on Saturday. Despite averaging 13.7 points per game and ranking second in the Big Ten in three-point percentage (40.3 percent), Jones is still trying to find his stride after his 25-day absence from the lineup.
“I expected a little rust, and he was rusty and winded, especially to jump into a game against Iowa which is the highest-scoring team in the league,” Chambers said. “He’ll catch up. I mean he was out for a long time.”
The Nittany Lions won their first four games without Jones, receiving enough help from multiple role players in each game to replace the sophomore guard’s lockdown shooting. The supporting cast has been less consistent over the past two weeks, and the load on Stevens’s shoulders finally became a bit too heavy. Chambers knows that while they need Jones to settle back into the rotation, Penn State needs other players to produce entering postseason play.
“I’m really proud of our team for weathering the storm,” Chambers said. “It shows the depth of our team, but this team still needs to get better.
“(Confidence) is going to be really important heading down the stretch,” Chambers continued. “I think Myles Dread has to continue to shoot, Seth (Lundy) is making his shots, and MJ needs to believe that we believe in him.”
Finding more reliable scoring options wasn’t the only challenge that Penn State faced without Jones. The wear and tear of playing in the Big Ten, which currently boasts eight Top 25 teams, started to take its toll on a team that went nearly a month without one of it’s go-to guys. Now, the Nittany Lions must find that extra gear if they want to make some noise in postseason play.
“We have to have the mental fitness to get our second wind, and to battle through,” Chambers said. “It’s March, man. You’re playing meaningful games in March. How fun is that? We’ve had a really historical year, but now we’ve got to finish it.”
In addition to finding that additional wave of energy, Penn State has struggled to put together a complete performance since defeating Purdue on the road on Feb. 11. Chambers acknowledged that only playing well in spurts won’t be enough if the team plans to succeed in elimination-style games.
“I want to see us play 40 minutes…we’re playing sporadically right now, and that’s not going to be good enough as we approach the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament,” Chambers said.
Even as they’ve endured setbacks in the past few games, the belief among the Nittany Lions’ locker room hasn’t wavered. Chambers mentioned that the team thinks it can win in every game, a mindset that hasn’t always been present over the course of his tenure at Penn State. The Nittany Lions will take that focus into their matchup with the Spartans, a team that beat No. 18 Iowa and won at No. 9 Maryland in their last two games.
After Penn State held off Michigan State on the road last month, the Spartans lost their third consecutive game, falling to 16-9 with an 8-5 conference record. Since then, Tom Izzo’s squad has rallied, winning four out of five games and rapidly ascending back to their usual spot near the top of the Big Ten.
Michigan State’s star point guard, Cassius Winston, has scored 20 or more points in each of the team’s last three wins while registering a blistering 56.3 percent clip from the field. That’s a far cry from his 8-for-21 performance in the loss to Penn State, or the 5-for-18 showing in a loss to Michigan in the following game. After dealing with foul trouble and picking up a technical foul against Iowa, Jamari Wheeler’s defensive prowess will be key if the Nittany Lions hope to knock off the surging Spartans on Tuesday night.
“We need him in the game,” Chambers said. “When he hasn’t played his solid minutes, it has hurt us. He needs to stay disciplined because we’re definitely going to need him in the game against Cassius, that’s for sure.”
The game will tip off at 7 p.m. at the Bryce Jordan Center, and you can watch it on ESPN.
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