After a humbling welcome to the Big Ten conference from the Michigan Wolverines, Penn State continues their two-game road trip in Evanston, IL. Talor Battle and company were perfect against Northwestern in their 4-years careers, so the Wildcats come in on a 6-game losing streak to Penn State. The previous installment on Nittany Lions matched up very well against the Wildcats, but this might be the year where the power in the series shifts.
Northwestern comes into the contest at 10-3, but have lost two in a row on the road to Creighton and Ohio State. The Wildcats are in 'NCAA-or-Bust' mode for the third straight season, which means this is an absolute 'must-win' for them. Home losses against teams with the computer rankings PSU will have come March are huge black eyes on any bubble team's profile.
The Wildcats are led on offense by the experienced duo of 6-8 John Shurna and 6-4 Drew Crawford. Shurna is having another great campaign in his senior year, scoring 18.8 PPG with 5.9 RPG. He's been great once again from behind the arc (43%), but his 2P shooting percentage has regressed (45%). Crawford is having an all-conference season as well, averaging 17.7 PPG and 5.1 RPG. He has been incredibly efficient on offense despite using 23.2% of possessions. His shooting percentages have all significantly improved (60.4% eFG%, 59% 2P%, and 42% 3P%).
Coming into the year, a huge question was the point guard position. Four-year starter Michael Thompson had graduated, and his replacement, Dave Sobolewski, was just a true freshmen. However, Sobolewski has been greatly efficient in his role of running the team, despite being thrown into the fire right away (83.3% %Min). He doesn't look to score (12% Shot%), but he's been accurate when he does shoot (55.5 eFG%). His assist rate (21.8) and turnover rate (12.5) are very good, let alone for a true freshmen.
The rest of Northwestern's rotation is rounded out with familiar faces in Luka Mirkovic, JerShon Cobb, Davide Curletti, and Alex Marcotullio. Junior guard Reggie Hearn has broken into the rotation as a starter, despite playing very little in his first two seasons in Evanston. Cobb seems healthy finally after battling offseason hip surgery and a concussion suffered in their 5th game of the year. He's played 53% of the minutes in the last 5 games and will likely continue to take Hearn's minutes.
Penn State will have the advantage in athleticism and on the boards, but that's about it. Shurna will be a match-up nightmare defensively for the Nittany Lions. I'm hopeful PSU's bigs can make an impact inside and on the glass. The Lions' offense is going to be tempted to shoot plenty of threes, but if PSU is going to be competitive, they're going to need to get inside the 1-3-1 zone. If they can, this game could go either way, but the Nittany Lions' offense has been erratic regardless of the scheme the opponent plays.
Some keys for Penn State will be:
- Contesting shots - NW shoots 53.1% eFG% as a team. PSU needs to keep that number under 50% to have a chance.
- Dominating the offensive glass - NW has never been a good rebounding team under Bill Carmody. It's unlikely PSU will shoot well, but if they could get 2nd chances, they might be able to grind out enough points to win.
- Make threes - The three-point shot has a big role in the success of PSU's offense, since they shoot so many of them. If they could make a few for once, they'll stay in the game. I'd prefer they stay away from 20+ 3PA, but I think it's inevitable against the zone. So if they're going to shoot 'em, make 'em.
You can catch the game between your NFL action, starting at 7:00 PM on ESPNU.