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2018 NIT Preview: Things stay interesting for the Lions in the NCAA undercard

A trip to South Bend to face the Irish is shaping up as one fun NIT tilt

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Oh crap.

I nearly forgot to write this.

I mean, I saw Tony Carr had 2 points on a 1-for-12 night from the field and, despite being in attendance Wednesday evening, just assumed that Penn State dropped its NIT opener.

Thankfully, Josh Reaves’ second career double-double (19 points and 11 rebounds) filled in the box score and the Nittany Lions were able to advance to the second round of the NCAAs version of the Golden Globes.

Despite the victory, Wednesday’s battle for Philadelphia bragging rights was down right ugly, and Penn State needed a 19 point fourth quarter (that’s weird to write) outburst to ultimately take down cross-state rival Temple.

The Lions will need a more consistent output over all four quarters (still weird to write) on Saturday in South Bend if it hopes to continue its quest to raise the programs second NIT Championship banner.

And unlike Temple, the top seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish will provide a much more formidable opponent for Patrick Chambers team.

-No. 4 Penn State Nittany Lions at No. 1 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

  • Time/TV: 12:00PM ET - ESPN
  • KenPom Spread: Notre Dame (-3.5)

Both the 2017-’18 versions of Penn State and Notre Dame share a decent amount of similarities.

Each team fancied its chances to make the NCAA Tournament, only to have its bubbles burst by coming up a win short in its respective conference tournaments.

Both suffered an embarrassingly bad buzzer-beating home defeat to mid-major also-rans, with Rider taking down the Lions and Ball State stealing one from the Irish.

The pair had to find ways to stay afloat despite missing key contributors for long stretches of time, with Notre Dame losing senior leading score Bonzie Colson for 15 games while Penn State missed the duo of Mike Watkins and Josh Reaves for a combined 11 tilts.

And as its been noted ad nauseam, both squads benefitted mightily when they started to get healthy.

Reaves’ return to the Lions lineup was the spark plug that turned Penn State’s season around. Colson, meanwhile, was reinserted into the Irish rotation for Notre Dame’s final six games, where he averaged 16.5 points and 9.6 rebounds, resurrecting the golden domes postseason lives.

Yet one name remains absent from that last paragraph and, despite all the similarities, could prove to be a giant noticeable difference between the two schools on Saturday.

With Mike Watkins being unable to return from a knee injury, Penn State has been forced to continually experiment with inexperienced big men and Villanova-inspired small ball lineups.

Getting former Army football commit John Harrar an extended look and having 6-foot-8 Lamar Stevens as the tallest player on the court has produced a mixed bag of results.

My hat’s off to Patrick Chambers for throwing whatever he can at the wall in the absence of his supremely gifted sophomore forward, however, it’s fair to safe he’d prefer to have Watkins as his disposal and leave the experimentation to the on-the-court rule changes. (Have I mentioned how weird playing four quarters is?).

Survive and advance is a term typically reserved for those in the Big Dance, however, its become the Lions calling card during its run through the Big Ten Tournament and NIT. In fact, with some inconsistent production on top of Watkins glaring absence any type of winning streak Penn State has managed to put together remains a bit of anomaly.

Against the Fighting Irish, Penn State’s remaining pieces will need to click on all cylinders to find a way past a Notre Dame team that was oh-so-close to making the field of 68.

Hampton found that out on Tuesday when the dropped its NIT opener in South Bend by a final score of 84-63. What makes that 21 point victory all the more impressive is the fact that Notre Dame did it with senior guard Matt Farrell going an uncharacteristic 4-for-18 from the field including an ugly 1-for-10 from beyond the arc.

So while the Lions will be counting on Tony Carr getting going after his off evening, the same could be said about the Irish and its star guard.

If both teams were at full strength, playing at full speed in a more meaningful game, this would be an incredibly even matched and fun contest to take in. Each programs compete at both ends of the court, have more than its fair share of high-level players, and play an entertaining style of basketball.

But with Watkins out and this game tipping off at noon on Saint Patrick’s day in Notre Dame as the NCAA Tournament continues on, it’s safe to say that any eyeballs on this one will be a little glassy eyed, to say the least.

On top of that, news broke late Friday evening that sophomore guard Nazeer Bostick will be suspended for Saturday’s game after being charged with marijuana possession. While not a key offensive contributor on the year, Bostick was the Lions second leading score in Wednesday’s win over Temple. He also averages 17.4 minutes per game off the pine, so Chambers will have to look a little deeper down his bench to replace that contribution.

A lot has been said about the high quality of teams in the NIT field this year, and a quick glance at the 16 programs still playing supports that hypothesis.

Penn State was always going to have to beat good teams to make its way back to Madison Square Garden. That would have been true whether they were the top overall seed or the last team in.

Knowing that doesn’t make things any easier, however, and on Saturday the deck might be stacked a little too much against the Nittany Lions.

  • Pick Against The Spread: Notre Dame

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Season Record vs KenPom’s Spread: 26-18-1