If you're reading this, it's likely Wednesday morning and we have all lived long enough to see the dawn of a 14-team Big Ten Basketball Tournament. Congratulations are in order. Grab a mimosa and lets talk about the first game of the day. Live from Chicago! It's No. 13 Penn State vs. No. 12 Nebraska! In case you can't be in the United Center for this one, it will be televised on ESPN2. Tip-off is scheduled for 3:30 CT.
Back on February 7, Penn State defeated Nebraska 56-43 in a game that saw the Huskers score just 13 points in the first half. D.J. Newbill was held to 11 points and forced into six turnovers by a stiff Nebraska defense, but it didn't matter because Shavon Shields and Terran Petteway combined to shoot 8-for-25 from the field. Penn State's defense has been improved this year thanks to the shot blocking prowess of Jordan Dickerson, but this game was more about the Huskers failing to get out of their own way.
All season long Nebraska has played good defense but been held back by putrid shooting figures. As a team, Big Red shoots 28 percent from beyond the arc. Against Penn State, that figure was 10 percent on 20 attempts. Gross. Since the previous matchup, Penn State has won just once (this past Sunday in Minnesota on a Newbill buzzer-beater), while Nebraska still hasn't won a game. The Huskers are on an eight-game skid.
When Penn State has the ball
Last time, Nebraska limited Newbill to just eight field goal attempts and two free throw tries. Whenever that happens, Penn State's opponent has a good chance to win because of the inconsistency in the rest of the offense. The Lions shoot better than Nebraska (33 percent from three-point range), but still don't excel at it by any means. Brandon Taylor and Shep Garner love to chuck up threes no matter the chances of the ball going through the hoop. Penn State would be better served attacking off the dribble with Newbill and sophomore up-and-comer Geno Thorpe. Nebraska does steal the ball a lot, but they also send opponents to the foul line, which is something the Lions should try to take advantage of.
When Nebraska has the ball
Like the Huskers, Penn State has struggled with fouling opponents this season (yes, this game has the chance to get very ugly). That's why Tim Miles must get Petteway and Shields to attack the basket and settle for as few jump shots as possible. This was key in Nebraska's close loss to Maryland in the regular season finale. The two scorers combined for 21 free throw attempts, and that was almost enough to overcome a 31-percent shooting night for the Huskers. For a team that is as poor from three-point range as Nebraska is, it sure does attempt a lot of shots from beyond the arc. That has to stop in this game, even if Penn State sinks back into a zone.
The amount of shots we expect to be missed in this game makes rebounding very important. Ross Travis of Penn State is one of the best in the Big Ten at grabbing the ball off the rim, and he has upped his offensive game late in the season. A key offensive board here or there could make all the difference in a matchup that should be competitive, if not entertaining.
For Nebraska, Walter Pitchford could be vitally important because of his ability to stretch out opposing defenses. He's only a 29-percent three-point shooter for the season, but in certain games this year, Pitchford has made a huge difference. He knocked down 3-of-5 shots from beyond the arc in Nebraska's most recent win (on February 3 over Northwestern), and later lit up Maryland for five triples in a near-upset at College Park. Another hot night for Pitchford could prevent Penn State from clamping down too much on Petteway and Shields.
Penn State is favored by two points. KenPom expects a 60-58 Nittany Lions victory. A narrow Penn State victory seems likely from here give Nebraska's lengthy losing streak and Newbill's recent heroics in Minneapolis. Both teams sport offenses that rely too heavily on one or two players, but Newbill is a little smarter about picking his spots than Petteway or Shields.