Penn State Faces Crucial Road Test At Northwestern

Penn State has been pretty awful on the road this season, but it has a chance to begin turning that around tonight when it faces Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Ill. The game will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network ESPN2 at 9:00 P.M.

The Nittany Lions (14-12, 7-8) still have just one road win on the year as they play their final game in the month of February. Outside of a 69-60 triumph in Bloomington against Indiana, Penn State is 0-8 away from the Bryce Jordan Center. The Lions did, however, get the first of their three conference wins at Northwestern last year, a convincing 81-70 victory in which all five Penn State starters finished with double figures in points.

When the teams last met on Feb. 13, the Lions dominated 65-41 on the scoreboard, but that was as much a product of Northwestern's futility as anything Penn State was doing well. The Wildcats scored only 15 points in the first half and went 2-21 from the 3-point line on route to their lowest offensive output of the season.

Northwestern figures to look much better this time around. Not only will the Wildcats be in front of their own fans this time around, they've played much better basketball since their trip to Happy Valley, knocking off Iowa and Indiana in the two games since.

This game is almost make-or-break for Penn State's NCAA Tournament hopes. Win it, and the Lions will likely be able to split their final two against No. 3 Ohio State and Minnesota to have a good chance at playing for something at the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis. Lose it, and they're very likely looking at having to beat the mighty Buckeyes at home and Golden Gophers on the road in order to have a reasonable shot at earning an at large bid in Indy.

 

When Penn State Has The Ball

  • Four Penn State starters finished with double figure points in State College, so scoring distribution might be a nice place for the Lions to start in earning this much needed road win.
  • Part of the reasons the starters saw so much success, though, was that they all played 30 minutes or more in the game. The bench needs to give them a blow. By now, it sounds like a broken record, but it's true in every single game: if the bench can support Penn State's veteran starting five, the Lions are pretty tough to beat. When it can't, disaster strikes.
  • The offense needs to get off to a good road start for once. In Penn State's last three road games at Illinois, Michigan State and Wisconsin, the Lions have fallen behind by double digits early and been forced to play catch up the entire game. Over the course of 40 minutes, that takes a toll, and it should be no surprise the Lions weren't able to pull out wins. If you're Ed DeChellis, you want to see your team come out focused and refuse to let the environment beat them in the first half.

When Northwestern Has The Ball

  • Whatever Penn State did to John Shurna in the first matchup, it needs to do it again. The star junior forward and the Wildcats' leading scorer at a few ticks north of 17 points per game registered only seven points in Happy Valley and was never really a factor. Without him, Northwestern's offense was sunk. If Penn State can contain him again, it'll do wonders for its chances.
  • The Lions outrebounded Northwestern 31-20 in the first game. If Penn State can keep that going in this one, it'll also help dramatically. The Wildcats figure to shoot much better in their own gym, but if the Lions limit second chances, the hope would be that they can contain that to a certain degree. So keep an eye on the boards.
  • Perimeter defense is key. There was probably a little luck involved in Northwestern going 2-21 from deep the first time around, but you could tell the Lions were defending the arc better than they have all season. If they can duplicate something even close to that kind of effort on the outside, they'll be OK. If not, Northwestern may triple them out of NCAA Tournament consideration.

Overall

There are all kind of reasons why Penn State could lose this game, not the least of which being Northwestern probably couldn't have played much worse in State College. That said, if Penn State can't win this one, it doesn't deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament. The Lions have owned the 'Cats under Ed DeChellis and if the Lions play some tough defense and control the boards, that should continue. Worrying about those two above all else is important. The rest should take care of itself.

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