A week ago, it would have been hard to fathom, but this morning Penn State wakes up tied for fourth place in the Big Ten conference with Illinois and Michigan State at 7-7 and has a chance to take a half game lead in a four game sprint to the finish when the Nittany Lions take on No. 10 Wisconsin tonight at 6:00 P.M. inside the Kohl Center.
Last Thursday, Penn State was in the midst of a three-game losing streak and sat at 5-7 in league play, but wins over Northwestern last Sunday and Minnesota on Thursday have the Lions not only back at mid-pack in the Big Ten, but within range of an NCAA Tournament at-large berth.
In his latest Bracketology, ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi has the Lions among his "Next Four Out." with Gonzaga, Clemson and Oklahoma State. The "First Four Out" are Colorado State, UAB, Richmond and Washington State while the first four in are Boston College, Michigan State, Wichita State and Butler. Four of the teams in those three categories lost on Saturday, giving Penn State a real shot to move up with a win.
The Lions defeated the Badgers in their last meeting on Jan. 29 at the Bryce Jordan Center behind 22 points from Talor Battle, 12 from Jeff Brooks and 10 from David Jackson. They did, however, fall in overtime at Madison last year after leading by as many as 16 points in the second half. If they can pull off a win this time around, they'll be more than alive for a little March Madness.
When Penn State Has The Ball
Cammeron Woodyard has averaged 4.7 points and 3.5 rebounds for Penn State over his last four games. The bench has been a sore spot for Penn State all season, so if he can sustain that production for his team on the road, that'll be a huge boost. He stands to get some minutes in place of the still-recovering Brooks, so keep an eye for him in this one.
- It won't be easy, but the Lions have to shoot well. It took 47% from the field to take down the Badgers back in Happy Valley, and you'd have to figure on the road, that might be around the minimum number needed to stay in the game.
- Penn State has kept its turnovers in single-digits for five straight games. As always, if you can hold onto the ball, you're going to have a chance to win, and the Lions have done that with regularity recently. If they're careful with the ball in this one, that should mitigate Wisconsin's considerable home court advantage a little bit.
When Wisconsin Has The Ball
- Hands down, the biggest matchup of this game will be Penn State's guards vs. Jordan Taylor. When the Badgers' junior guard goes off as he did against Michigan State for 30 points and Ohio State for 27 points, Wisconsin is darn close to a Final Four caliber team. When he's contained like he was last month in State College, when the Lions held him to 16 points on 7-13 shooting, The Badgers are beatable. Keep an eye on how Tim Frazier and Talor Battle defend him in this one.
- If you're Penn State, you can't forget about Jon Leuer, though. The senior forward had a nice game in State College with 18 points and four rebounds, so he's ever dangerous in the post. It'll be important for Penn State's forwards not to get in foul trouble as they did against Minnesota so they can constantly be throwing their best possible defense at him.
- Penn State had a tough time rebounding against Minnesota Thursday night, getting worked on the boards by 12. The Lions will need to get the rebounding swagger they had in State College back, when they beat the Badgers 29-23 on the boards.
Ken Pomeroy gives Penn State a 10% chance of winning this one. The Lions are actually considered a better match for soon-to-be No. 1 Ohio State at home on March 1. A win Sunday evening will likely require one of Penn State's best performances of the season. With Jeff Brooks looking healthier, though, and Talor Battle looking better and better every night, you never know what can happen. Wisconsin has been Penn State's kryptonite under Ed DeChellis, but if the last two games between the teams have shown anything, it's that the Lions can compete with this team. And never underestimate how formidable a desperate team can be. Wisconsin is just about locked to its seed in the Big Ten tournament while the Lions are playing for their lives. It'll be interesting to see the intensity levels the two teams play with off the tip.