Uncertainty has certainly been a theme for Penn State this basketball season, so perhaps its fitting that it all comes down to a game about which so little can be expected. When the Nittany Lions take the Conseco Fieldhouse floor in Indianapolis this evening at roughly 9 P.M. there's a good chance most fans will be asking the same questions.
Will they see the Penn State team that rallied from a double-digit deficit to upset the Badgers in State College Jan. 29? Or will the see the Penn State team that folded like a cheap suit when the Lions traveled to the Kohl Center and was drubbed on Feb. 20?
The answer probably lies somewhere in between, but there is one thing everyone can agree on: Penn State needs to win the game to have a chance at an NCAA Tournament at-large berth.
At this point, the Lions' resume is pretty complete. It boasts solid RPI and Strength of Schedule numbers and has enough quality wins to wow the selection committee. The glaring hole is the lack of a big road/neutral site win, and should Penn State achieved on against the No. 13 Badgers on Friday, it will have gone a long way toward filling it.
Let's be clear: a win against Wisconsin promises Penn State nothing. If bubble teams hang on like they did on Thursday, beating Wisconsin might turn out to be nothing more than a nice jump starter for the team's tournament hopes. A victory, should, however, make Selection Sunday interesting in Happy Valley at the very least.
Needless to say, it's a crucial game, and we'll break it down for you after the jump.
When Penn State Has The Ball
- The Lions posted solid shooting numbers (47.5% in the win, 53.1% in the loss) in both games against Wisconsin earlier in the year so we can reasonably expect the Lions will get their looks today. The key will be not letting the nerves get to them in such an important game and getting off to a good start by knocking some of those looks down. Penn State is a second half team, and any life it shows in the first half will be a big, big boost to Penn State's chances.
- The players need to hold on to the ball. Penn State had double-digit turnovers in both games against Wisconsin and last night against Indiana. It's time for the Lions to get back on that streak of five straight games with single digit turnovers they posted late in the regular season and they'll be in business.
Talor Battle had an off game against Indiana. The odds of that happening on two straight nights are pretty low. His teammates need to feed him the ball and allow him to put his signature on perhaps the biggest game of his, or anyone else on the team's career. We've seen him take over. There's no better day than today, Talor.
When Wisconsin Has The Ball
- The biggest difference between Penn State's win against Wisconsin and its loss was rebounding margin. Penn State dominated the statistic 29-23 in State College, but the Badgers owned the glass in Madison to the tune 24-19. If the Lions can rebound like they did in January, it's clear how much easier it will be for them to hang around and possibly pull an upset.
- Penn State must be wary of foul trouble. David Jackson, especially, has had trouble staying on the floor lately to give defenses one more option to worry about. He, nor any of his fellow teammates can afford to pick up a couple of early fouls by reaching in and trying to block a shot. If he and his teammates play smart, they'll be OK, though.
- With stars like Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor to occupy them, the Lions found themselves victimized by Keaton Nankivil in Madison. The forward was 5-5 from 3-point territory on the evening, and 8-9 from the field overall. Penn State needs to slow him down to have a chance.
Penn State will likely bring intensity and emotion into its performance tonight with an at-large berth on the line. As we learned against Ohio State, though, those things won't always do the trick. The Lions need to make sure they play smart and focused, from the top and point guard Tim Frazier down to the reserves. Otherwise, it might be a long winter.