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Penn State Hoops’ 2022 Big Ten Tournament Preview

For the first time in Micah Shrewsberry’s tenure at Penn State, the Indiana native will return to his home state for his first taste of postseason play in the Big Ten Tournament.

Prior to the Nittany Lions’ recent three-game losing skid, Shrewsberry’s up-and-coming squad cracked the top 10 of the Big Ten standings and was set to earn a first-round bye ahead of Wednesday’s opening night action in Indianapolis.

Although Penn State and Maryland finished with identical conference records at 7-13, the Nittany Lions came out on the wrong side of the tiebreaker following their 67-61 loss in College Park on February 21. With the head-to-head advantage, the Terrapins slid into the bracket’s 10th seed following the regular season’s commencement.

If Penn State hopes to sneak into any form of postseason play beyond the conference tournament, the Nittany Lions will likely need to surmount a five-game winning streak, culminating in a tournament crown. However, for the Nittany Lions to jumpstart a miraculous run, Shrewsberry’s crew must place its immediate focus on its first-round opponent in Minnesota.

First Round: Minnesota (Wednesday, 8:30 p.m.)

The 11th-seeded Nittany Lions will square off against No. 14 Minnesota in opening round action at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday in Indianapolis. With a subpar 4-16 record in Big Ten play, the Golden Gophers finished last in the conference’s regular-season standings after being narrowly edged out by red-hot Nebraska.

In late-season action, Penn State and Minnesota squared off twice in a five-day span, resulting in a split series for both teams. On February 12, the Golden Gophers pulled out a 76-70 victory in Minneapolis despite the Nittany Lions’ producing one of their most balanced scoring efforts of the season.

Sam Sessoms led the way with 18 points and five rebounds off the bench for the Nittany Lions, and Seth Lundy added in another 16 points behind 4-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc. Additionally, John Harrar and Jalen Pickett both produced double-digit scoring outputs of their own, with 12 and 10 points, respectively.

However, the four-headed offensive monster failed to hold off a career-high night from Eric Curry in front of a packed Williams Arena crowd. The senior guard exploded for 22 points behind a 53% shooting clinic from the field. Curry’s backcourt counterpart, Payton Willis, piled in an impressive double-double performance of his own with 18 points and 10 assists, which proved to be too potent for Penn State’s defense to counteract.

Unfortunately for the Golden Gophers, Ben Johnson’s crew caught the Nittany Lions for the second time on the heels of their signature win against Michigan State, which jumpstarted an impressive two-game stretch. In 31 minutes, Pickett blitzed the Minnesota defense for an efficient 20-point outing behind 9-for-14 shooting from the floor.

Along with Harrar’s double-double effort marked by 10 points and 10 rebounds, Penn State coasted to an effortless 67-46 victory, good for its largest win in program history over the Golden Gophers.

For Penn State to stave off upset-minded Minnesota for the second-straight time, Shrewsberry’s stout defense must hold the streaky Golden Gopher backcourt intact from distance. Minnesota has posted 70-or-more points in three of its last five games, showing the squad’s ability to catch fire quickly, despite the lack of sustained success.

Currently, the Nittany Lions hold the second-best defensive unit in the Big Ten by holding opponents to only 65.3 points per game. In Penn State’s second run against the Golden Gophers, Shrewsberry’s guards helped compile seven steals, leading to 16 assists, with the majority coming in transition through high probability fast break opportunities.

If the Nittany Lions can stick to the same suffocating defensive game plan, Penn State should be able to move past the senior-laden Golden Gophers and coast into the second round.

Second Round (If Needed): Ohio State (Thursday, ~9 p.m.)

With an opening night victory in Indianapolis, the Nittany Lions would move on and face No. 6 Ohio State in the late-night second-round slot on Thursday. The Buckeyes currently hold a 2-0 record over Penn State this season, with an average scoring differential of 8.5 points per matchup.

Chris Holtmann’s experienced squad is anchored by EJ Liddell, who recently earned First-Team All-Big Ten honors before the tournament’s commencement. The Illinois native started all 29 matchups for the Buckeyes and led the team in scoring with 19.4 points per game.

Additionally, the matchup nightmare averages 7.9 rebounds per game and 2.6 blocks per game, making his game a tough task for any front-court counterpart. Liddell had his way on the low block in both regular-season contests with the Nittany Lions, including a 19-point showing in Seth Lundy’s absence on January 16 in Columbus.

To the demise of Penn State fans, the glue that holds Ohio State’s well-paced attack together is point guard Jamari Wheeler. Although the former Nittany Lion isn’t the flashiest scorer, the Florida product has started every game he’s played while representing the scarlet and gray.

Behind just over three assists per outing, Wheeler has paved the way for the progression of Malaki Branham, who is the second of Ohio State’s two All-Big Ten honorees. Branham, a third team selection, burst on the national scene as a freshman by garnering 13.2 points per outing in his initial campaign.

On February 24, Branham exploded for a career-high 31 points on 10-of-14 shooting against Illinois. His ability to score down the stretch led the Buckeyes to an 86-83 road victory in Champaign, which marks Ohio State’s most impressive win to date.

With a solid 19-10 record, Ohio State has proven it can hang among the nation’s best throughout the regular season gauntlet highlighted by five quadrant-one wins. However, the Buckeyes are prone to dropping contests to inferior competition, as proven by five losses to quadrant-two or worse squads.

In the Nittany Lions’ last date with the Buckeyes, the absence of Lundy, the team’s most established lock-down defender, paved the way for Liddell to have his way with Penn State’s undersized interior. Now, with the addition of the Philadelphia native’s services and a healthy Greg Lee, the Buckeyes will see a completely overhauled unit in comparison to the one it controlled in the previous two matchups.

Postseason Tournament Hopes

Beyond the Big Ten Tournament, it is highly unlikely Penn State’s season will continue into either the NCAA Tournament or the NIT based on its current resume. To qualify for the Big Dance, the Nittany Lions only have one viable path, which is to win the conference tournament.

If Shrewsberry’s squad were to win its first two matchups against Minnesota and Ohio State, the Nittany Lions would still have Purdue, and likely Wisconsin and Illinois standing in its path, barring any monumental upsets. Although Penn State fell by only two possessions to both the Badgers and the Illini, it would take nothing short of a miracle for the upset-minded group to run the table in Indianapolis.

Aside from sneaking into the NCAA Tournament through a historical Cinderella story, Penn State’s NIT hopes still hold a glimmer of hope, despite ending the realgar season on a brutal three-game losing slide.

The Nittany Lions were considered to be right in the thick of the 16-team projection prior to their 23-point home loss against Nebraska. For Penn State to have a solid shot at earning a bid in the less-than-desirable postseason tournament, Shrewsberry and company need to win at least three games in the Big Ten Tournament, slotting them into semifinal action on Saturday afternoon.

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a senior from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania double majoring in journalism and business. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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