Penn State Faces Northwestern To Open String Of Must-Wins

As Penn State prepares to face Northwestern today at 3:30 P.M. on the Big Ten Network, its back is against the wall. The Nittany Lions are 12-11, and though they've had their moments, their record and current three-game losing streak suggests they're little more than a mediocre basketball team.

If they seriously believe they have a shot at the NCAA Tournament, they need to start winning. Today.

Northwestern has been Penn State's punching bag over the years, the team fans can almost always look down the schedule and count wins against. Even during the Lions' miserable 3-15 Big Ten campaign last year, they managed to find a way to outfox the Wildcats twice.

Forget the NCAA Tournament. Forget the NIT. Penn State needs this win to salvage pride.

Northwestern has been fairly solid this season at 14-9, though it is 4-8 in Big Ten play and owns really only one signature win against then-No. 24 and rapidly sinking Illinois. Beyond that, the 'cats have feasted on weaker competition to stay in the race for their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance.

Three Northwestern players average double figures. One is John Shurna, a 6'8" forward with a killer jumper. He's averaging 17.8 points per game, but has battled injury for much of the conference season, meaning you're never quite sure what to expect from him. He has the capability to go off for 25-30 points or he could struggle to break double figures. Penn State will likely find out quickly.

The 'cats best athlete is Michael "Juice" Thompson. The senior averages just under 15 points per game and has been playing especially well lately with 16 or more points in his last four games.

Keys to the game after the jump.

When Northwestern Has The Ball

  • The 'cats average just under 39% from the 3-point line. That's bad, bad news for a Penn State team that has had fits guarding the perimeter this season. Getting hands in faces will be important for the Lions in this one, perhaps as much or even more so than any game this season.
  • Northwestern likes to play at a deliberate pace. So does Penn State. The important thing defensively for the Lions will be not getting lulled to sleep and victimized by the very game they seek to play.
  • John Shurna is inconsistent this season with his injury. If the Lions can frustrate him early, they'll take him out of the game, and it'll be much easier to defend the 'cats if that happens.

When Penn State Has The Ball

  • It'll be interesting to see if Jeff Brooks gets the start in this game. He came off the bench in East Lansing, but played 33 minutes. His absence in the first few moments allowed Michigan State to take a big lead early in the game, one it wouldn't relinquish. If Brooks is able to go, Ed DeChellis would be smart to start him to ensure the Lions won't fall into another early hole. 
  • Penn State has messed around with too many halftime deficits this season. It's about time the Lions came out and took it to their opponents out of the gate.
  • Six players average five or more points for the 'cats. It's important for the Lions to remember all of the guys Bill Carmody puts on the floor can do damage. They can't afford to focus on Thompson and Shurna alone. They must play solid team defense to come away with this one.

Overall

The way Penn State is playing right now, it's hard to be confident heading into any game, even Northwestern. During this three game skid, the Lions have not only lost but lacked intensity, and until we see it, it's hard for me to get to excited about their prospects. The game is at home, though, and Penn State should have a real sense of urgency. If it doesn't, then things are hopelessly busted, but if it does, taking care of this ho-hum opponent shouldn't be too difficult.

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