Early this afternoon the Michigan State Spartans and Penn State Nittany Lions will tip off in a game that will be a perfect opportunity for the Spartans to avenge one of their worst losses this season.
Michigan State had a rough start to the season, with the team losing their two bigs prior to the season, facing an extremely difficult November non-conference schedule and then dropping a game to Northeastern in December. The Spartans did seem to turn things around a bit, though, winning their first three conference games until dropping an early January game against Penn State that saw the Nittany Lions outmatch them the entire way.
Luckily for Tom Izzo and his Spartans, the team turned things around throughout February and have managed to do enough to feel comfortable about their NCAA Tournament odds. Two three point losses to close the season, though, puts Michigan State in a position where they really need a win to help their seeding. Considering Michigan State could also draw Minnesota in the quarterfinals, a team they’ve beaten twice, and the Spartans could find a way to make a deep Big Ten Tournament run if they win today.
As for the Nittany Lions, the team has been seemingly stuck in neutral under Pat Chambers and closed the season on a five game losing streak before edging Nebraska in overtime on Wednesday. It wasn’t always pretty, with Penn State struggling to score down the stretch, but Pat Chambers program was able to pull away in the extra period.
That being said, here are three key points for today’s second round game between Michigan State and Penn State.
1. The Spartans need to limit turnovers.
The last time these two teams squared off Penn State was victorious, beating Michigan State by nine in a game that took placing at the Palestra, a legendary Philadelphia venue closely knit with the Philadelphia Big 5.
In that game Michigan State was sloppy with the ball and it played a huge factor in why they lost. Committing a whopping 17 turnovers, the Spartans squandered scoring opportunities as they couldn’t keep control of the ball. Their number of turnovers also looks bad as they were limited to just 11 assists on the day. Michigan State’s 17 turnovers was tied for the third most in a game this season for the Spartans, while their assists was just two shy from tying their season low.
In games where the Spartans have been held to under 12 assists they’ve gone 0-5, losing by an average of 13.8 points per game. In games the Spartans commit 15 or more turnovers, they’ve gone 3-8. Of course this makes sense, turning the ball over and struggling to distribute the rock are usually detrimental to winning games, but it was a key reason they lost the first time out and Izzo’s squad will need to clean up their act to avoid an upset.
2. Can Penn State convert from beyond the arc?
In the Nittany Lions five game losing streak to close the season they were absolutely dreadful from beyond the arc. The low point during that stretch was easily a 2 of 18 shooting performance in an overtime loss to Purdue. The Nittany Lions ended up shooting a dismal 27.1% from three during that losing streak, problematic as they also averaged shooting 23.6 three pointers per game during that stretch.
This isn’t entirely irregular from what Penn State has done most of the season, either, with the Lions shooting the 6th most threes during conference play even though they ranked near the bottom (12th) in three point percentage. Luckily for Penn State, they fared a bit better yesterday when they hit 38.9% of their 18 threes, led by Shep Garner’s 4 of 7 shooting performance.
If Penn State can hit from outside they should be in considerably better position today. That holds even truer when you realize that they still tend to rely on the long ball even when it isn’t falling.
3. Michigan State needs more from Miles Bridges.
Miles Bridges has been absolutely fantastic down the stretch for the Spartans and really is the main reason Izzo’s squad is set for another appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The freshman is averaging 16.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per game and has helped a Michigan State team that doesn’t have as many weapons this season.
That being said, the last times Bridges failed to reach double figures was against Penn State. Of course Bridges was just working his way back from an injury, but the freshman scored 4 points on 2 of 8 shooting in 27 minutes of action. Considering how well Bridges has been since this game, if Michigan State had had a more typical outing from the guard, things could have played out entirely different.
Luckily for the Spartans, Bridges has only continued to play better and better down the stretch and it seems unlikely that a struggling Penn State program will be capable of keeping Bridges from having a decisively better day than the last time these two teams met.