As the season winds down, wins are at a premium for bubble teams across the country, and that will certainly be true for Penn State and Minnesota when they meet inside the Bryce Jordan Center at 7:00 P.M. on ESPN.
The Nittany Lions (13-11, 6-7) are clinging to hope of an NCAA Tournament at large birth as they've already racked up double-digit losses and have pretty much exhausted their margin of error. However, some are suggesting .500 in the Big Ten could earn a bid and Penn State is right there.
The Golden Gophers (17-8, 6-7) certainly have a more impressive record overall than Penn State, however, a loss tonight would drop them two games below .500 in the league and make them losers in five of their last six, neither of which the selection committee will look fondly on.
Sharpshooter Blake Hoffarber will lead the Gophers into the Jordan Center this evening, averaging 13.9 points per game and 39% shooting from 3-point territory. He'll be supported by forward Trevor Mbakewe who averages a double-double with 13.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. Ralph Sampson III contributes 10.7 points and 5.6 rebounds.
When Minnesota Has The Ball
- Penn State's forwards need to have a good night defensively. With Devoe Joseph transferring to Oregon and Al Nolen injured, Minnesota is a much less dangerous team on the outside than it once was. The focus defensively needs to be on Sampson III and Mbakwe. If Penn State can contain them, it'll have a good shot to win at home.
- All that being said, the Lions can't forget about Blake Hoffarber. He's traditionally had great success against Penn State, and given the Lions' troubles guarding the perimeter this season, you can reasonably expect him to have another good night. Penn State just needs to make sure it isn't too good.
- Keep an eye on how Penn State's guards match up with Minnesota's. With some less experienced players out top, Tim Frazier and Talor Battle might have a chance to create some turnovers.
- Obviously, rebounding against a big team like Minnesota will be key. Second chance points will kill Penn State and the Gophers certainly have the bodies to get them. The Lions need to put as much care into rebounding in this game as they did against teams like Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State earlier in the conference season.
When Penn State Has The Ball
- If there's a team Penn State needs to shoot well against, it's this one. The Gophers are among the tougher teams in the league inside, but, again, with the loss of Joseph and Nolen on the outside, there should be some open looks from medium and long range for the Lions to exploit this evening. Penn State's got to knock them down.
- Tim Frazier got into double figures against Northwestern by drawing fouls and getting to the line. It'll be interesting to see if he can continue to do that against Minnesota.
- When Northwestern struggled offensively on Sunday, Penn State kept its foot on the gas and raced out to as much as a 25-point lead. The Lions need to do that again if Minnesota runs into a drought. They can't match a Gopher drought with one of their own.
A few weeks ago, I would have said this game would be a toughie, but looking down the rest of the schedule, it might be the most winnable game the rest of the way. That's not to say it will be easy, but given Minnesota's struggles and depth issues and the location of the game, you'd expect Penn State to have the advantage. Even the conservative Pomeroy models have the Lions snagging this one, so, if they still see themselves as a bubble team, they'd be wise not to blow this one.