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3/29 NIT Championship Preview: Move over Kermit and Miss Piggy, tonight the Lions take Manhattan

Penn State will look for its second NIT Championship when it meets the Utah Utes on Thursday night

NCAA Basketball: NIT-Penn State vs Mississippi State Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Ghostbusters. Total Recall. The Karate Kid.

Typically when a beloved thing of the past is rebooted and reimagined, the modern version falls flat on its face, paling in comparison to the revered original.

Apparently this only applies to Hollywood, however, as the Nittany Lions have bucked that trend despite its 2018 postseason run invoking more than its fair share of deja vu to Penn State’s NIT title chase nine years ago.

Back in 2009, the Lions were led to New York City by a generational sophomore guard in Talor Battle. That team had to overcome the disappointment of missing the Big Dance thanks to a lousy non-conference schedule, barely surviving its first round NIT home game against George Mason.

After gutting out a win, the team went on a run that included a dominating performance in the tournaments semi-finals before ultimately capturing the title two days later as a sea of blue and white clad Penn Staters turned Madison Square Garden into Happy Valley East.

Winning the NCAAs Intercontinental Championship became a much-needed signature win for the Lions embattled head coach Ed DeChellis, while simultaneously allowing one of the programs most consistent stalwarts, Jamelle Cornely, to end his career on a winning note.

And despite what would be a train wreck of an encore season in 2010, the NIT win was a needed stepping-stone for a talented but young core of Nittany Lions that paved the way towards an NCAA Tournament berth two years later.

Sub in Tony Carr, Patrick Chambers, and Shep Garner for Talor Battle, Ed DeChellis, and Jamelle Cornley and you more or less have the exact story that this current Penn State team has followed.

What remains up in the air, however, is the ending. Can the 2017-’18 Nittany Lions take the title and build towards the NCAAs or will the revamped script lead to a more somber and disappointing ending?

-No. 4 Penn State Nittany Lions vs No. 2 Utah Utes

  • Time/TV: 7:00PM ET - ESPN2
  • KenPom Spread: Penn State (-3)

One big differential between the ’09 and current version of the Lions is that this years team is doing it without the services of its second best player.

But thanks to Patrick Chambers coaching his ass off and the rest of the Lions taking their game to a higher level, Penn State has managed to keep rallying off wins despite Mike Watkins remaining on the sidelines and in a knee brace.

Watkins absence has allowed the Lions to get an extended look at freshmen forward John Harrar. Used sparingly during the regular season, the 6-foot-9 underclassman was inserted into the starting lineup starting with Penn State’s first game of the Big Ten Tournament.

With each passing game, Harrar continues to look like a real steal for a player who had been recruited to play football and was a late addition to a recruiting class expected to have no open scholarships. And while his line of two points, seven rebounds, and two assists from Tuesday nights win doesn’t look like much, he more than passed the eye-test in what’s been his best game to date.

Also passing the eye test, not to mention former Lion Pete Lisicky on the programs all-time 3-pointers made list, was senior guard Shep Garner.

Garner went 6-for-9 from beyond the arc and played a key roll in Penn State’s 28-2 run during the end of the first quarter and start of the second.

On Thursday, the Lions well meet a well-balanced Utah team that’s led by senior transfer Justin Bibbins. On the year the guard averaged 14.8 points per game, and was the teams leading scorer with 19 points in the Utes overtime semi-finals win over Western Kentucky.

In addition to Bibbins, Utah has three other players who average in double figures in guard Sedrick Barefield, and forwards David Collette and Tyler Rawson.

So what’s this all mean for Thursday’s championship tussle?

Well on paper, Utah looks like a poor man’s version of the Nittany Lions. Sure, its top 60 ranked offensive and defensive efficiency figures aren’t half bad, but they pail in comparison when put up against Penn State and its 48th ranked offense and 18th ranked defense.

And yeah, Justin Bibbins is a solid player. But would anyone take him over Tony Carr?

Penn State is more talented, battle tested, and rested entering tonight’s championship.

It’ll have a significant advantage when it comes to fans in the stands, along with a higher ceiling on both ends of the court.

In short, the Lions are just better.

And on Thursday, it’ll prove it.

  • Pick Against The Spread: Penn State


Season Record vs KenPom’s Spread: 28-20-1