If Penn State intends to make a serious run at the NCAA Tournament, it begins Wednesday night at the Bryce Jordan Center when the team hosts Iowa at 6:30 on the Big Ten Network.
The Hawkeyes (8-11, 1-6) have the worst record in the Big Ten, but they've had Penn State's number of late, winning the last two games in the series dating back to 2008-2009 when they derailed the Lions' NCAA Tournament aspirations with a 75-67 overtime win in Iowa City. Penn State did win the last matchup at the Jordan Center, however, erasing a 14 point second half deficit to win that same season.
Under first year coach Fran McCaffery, Iowa enters the game with a largely new cast of characters. Junior Matt Gatens remains from previous seasons and leads the team with a 13.2 point per game average, but he's one of the lone holdovers from the Todd Lickliter era. Fresno State transfer Bryce Cartwright is next on Iowa's scoring list with a 10.7 points per game average. Perhaps the Hawks' most dangerous player, however, is freshman Melsahn Basabe. The forward averages 10.2 points, seven rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, and in his best games, Iowa typically plays pretty well. His 22 point, 11 rebound performance against No. 1 Ohio State was his coming out party. If he plays well, the Hawkeyes could very well challenge the Lions.
That being said, this is a game Penn State must have more than any it's played to this point. The Lions still have a bit of a cushion for losses as they come down the stretch in Big Ten play, but not bad losses, and a defeat at the hands of the Hawkeyes would create a gaping hole in a resume that has grown considerably stronger in the last two and a half weeks with upsets of Michigan State and Illinois and near misses on the road at Ohio State and Purdue. Penn State is up to 50 in the RPI and now has the No. 5 ranked strength of schedule. If the Lions hope to keep those vitals strong and attractive for the NCAA Tournament selection committee, it's imperative they pick up a win Wednesday night.
Keys to the game after the jump.
When Iowa Has The Ball
- Basabe is Iowa's most dangerous weapon. Gatens and Cartwright are consistently solid, but they don't have quite the potential to haul off and blow the game open. If Penn State can keep him from establishing some momentum, defending Iowa shouldn't be too difficult.
- Penn State has established some real momentum on the boards in the last few games. It's important for the team to keep that going as the Lions prepare to face a solid rebounding team in Wisconsin on Saturday. Iowa might be smaller, but that's no reason to slack.
- Iowa is just the kind of team that can sneak up on Penn State from 3-point land and steal a win. See: Kelly, Jake c. 2009. The Lions have been prone to leaking three balls for much of the last two season, so this is an area of concern.
When Penn State Has The Ball
- The Lions would be wise to stay within themselves on offense and make the most of each possession. No reason to rush. The Hawks are allowing well north of 70 points per game in conference play, which should be plenty for the Lions to win if they can get there.
- Wednesday night might be the best opportunity for the bench to gain a little momentum. Jermaine Marshall and Billy Oliver showed flashes of being decent options in reserve earlier in the conference season but didn't contribute much of anything against Ohio State and Purdue. Time for them to try and get back on track.
- One of Penn State's strengths this season has been proficiency at the free throw line. It'd probably be good for the Lions to try to get there a little bit more by attacking the basket and forcing Iowa to put them on the line.
Iowa is ranked ahead of Penn State nationally in points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game, and field goal percentage to name a few. Of course, those numbers even out considerably if only conference play if factored in, but the fact remains that Iowa isn't going to roll over and die. The Hawkeyes, statistically, are a better basketball team, and Penn State has to attack this game with that mindset or things could get ugly. That said, the seniors know how important this game is. After a week off, look for Penn State to come out strong and put together one of its more energetic 40 minute performances of the season.