The first game of the Big Ten Tournament features two bottom feeders looking to flip their fortunes.
Less than a month ago, the 12th seeded Nebraska Cornhuskers defeated the 13th seeded Penn State Nittany Lions 82-66. The following game, the Cornhuskers beat Ohio State and established some momentum in the last full month of the season.
The success was short lived. The next four games were all losses, and in blowout fashion. Nebraska’s average margin of defeat during the skid was nearly 21 points.
Penn State hasn’t looked much better. The Nittany Lions finished the regular season on a five game losing streak. While they haven’t been blown out quite as badly as Nebraska, the team has looked disjointed and has lacked sustained effort.
As both teams seek to turnaround their season, the contest should be fierce. The victor is rewarded with a Thursday matchup with Michigan State. Let’s look at three key factors for the game.
The last time Nebraska and Penn State met the Cornhuskers ran wild in the open court. The backcourt speed of Glynn Watson Jr. and Tai Webster frequently took advantage of the Nittany Lions’ lack of focus in transition. Recording four rebounds each, both guards turned boards into quick points by initiating breaks with swift outlets and sliced through defenders.
Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers took notice. Following the embarrassing performance, the Nittany Lions began incorporating a ¾ court press in an attempt to neutralize their opponent’s speed. The press has proven successful thus far, though it has put the spotlight on other Penn State inadequacies.
The matchup to watch will be the blazing speed of Watson Jr. and the Cornhusker backcourt versus Penn State’s ability to set up in their press. While the press can slow down opponents inbounding full court, it cannot impede breaks started from turnovers and long rebounds.
Nebraska’s 6.8 steals a game are good for fourth in the conference. Watson Jr. and Webster average three steals a game between the two of them alone. That may not bode well for the Penn State squad, which ranks in the bottom half of the Big Ten in turnovers at 13.1 a game.
2. Shot Selection
In front of a raucous home crowd in Lincoln, the Cornhuskers were scorching hot from the field against Penn State. Nebraska finished 55.4% from the floor and added 15 points from the line on 20 free throw attempts. Watson Jr. and Jack McVeigh led the efficient assault with 15 points each on a combined 9 of 17 shooting.
For as well as Nebraska shot the ball, Penn State was equally inefficient. The Nittany Lions could only muster a paltry 39.7% field goal percentage. Lamar Stevens shot 5 of 15 from the floor, while Shep Garner and Payton Banks combined to shoot 5-21 overall, including 1-12 from three.
The poor shooting of Garner and Banks is not an isolated incident. In addition to the horrendous performance against the Cornhuskers, the junior forward duo has gone 19-59 from the field over the past three games. If Garner and Banks continue to chuck with unchecked volume, Penn State’s success will hinge on their shooting percentages. Based on the past month, they won’t fare well, especially if Nebraska shoots anywhere near as well as they did in the last matchup.
3. Who will exploit the interior?
Nebraska and Penn State both lack a dominating post presence. In their previous matchup, Nebraska did a tremendous job of exploiting the Nittany Lion’s inside deficiencies. Despite freshman center Jordy Tshimanga averaging just 4.9 points and 4 rebounds a game, he finished with 12 points and 7 rebounds against the Penn State. Tshimanga scored early and often, as the Cornhuskers countered forward Mike Watkins’ athleticism with physicality. Watkins was held to just 8 points and 3 rebounds in the loss to Nebraska.
For Penn State to succeed they will need Mike Watkins to perform well on both ends of the court. The more his activity disappears on the offensive end, the more freedom the Nittany Lions have to shoot unnecessarily from the perimeter. Defensively, there is simply no one else on the roster to protect the rim. While the Penn State wings do a great job of generating turnovers, the defense doesn’t slide over to help as often as they can. The team needs Watkins as a last line of defense.
Penn State’s leading rebounder in the loss to Nebraska was point guard Tony Carr. Overall, Nebraska won the rebounding battle 40 to 29. If Nebraska can do that again they will have no problem picking up the victory.
Nebraska and Penn State should both battle hard to advance in the Big Ten Tournament. For Nebraska, the blueprint to victory is there. If they can recreate their last contest with the Nittany Lions they will advance to Michigan State. For Penn State, it’s gut check time. After a blowout loss to the Cornhuskers less than a month ago, their pride is on the line. If the Nittany Lions can learn from their mistakes, limit poor shots and play aggressively they will move on. Otherwise, they will be sitting at home on Wednesday night.