Penn State traveled to Indianapolis looking to leave as better than the seventh Big Ten team in the NCAA Tournament pecking order on Selection Sunday. Though wins against Indiana on Thursday and No. 13 Wisconsin on Friday went a long way toward solidifying the Nittany Lions postseason resume, the team will still be searching to leap itself over its conference bubble peers when it takes on Michigan State at around 4:00 P.M. in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals on CBS.
In case you missed it, Michigan knocked off Illinois 60-55 in the quarterfinals on Friday afternoon while Michigan State upset second-seed Purdue 74-56. The wins kept the Spartans and Wolverines ahead of the Lions in most pronosticators' projections for the 68-team NCAA Tournament field. Penn State will get a chance to make up some ground, however, if it can manage a win over Sparty and see Michigan fall against top-seeded Ohio State in the other semifinal.
The Lions and Spartans split their regular season meetings, with Penn State earning a 66-62 upset victory in State College on Jan. 8 and Michigan State dominating in a 75-57 win at the Breslin Center on Feb. 10. In the rubber match, a win might be the difference between the NCAA Tournament and the NIT for the winner, making this game the most important of them all.
When Michigan State Has The Ball
- Penn State must harass Spartan guard Kalin Lucas every chance it gets. The senior had a huge day against Purdue in the quarterfinals, racking up 30 points on 8-15 shooting. He also used up a bunch of energy as the Michigan State offense ran through him most of the day. If the Lions can keep pressure on his tired legs, it should help them limit his production and force Lucas' teammates to beat them.
- In the Jan. 8 win, Penn State limited Draymond Green and Delvon Roe to a combined 12 points. In the Feb. 10 loss, the pair went off for 30 points. The closer the Lions can hold them to the first total, the better. Michigan State is at its best when those guys are performing, and if Penn State takes them out of their game as they did in State College, defending the rest of the team becomes a lot easier.
- Keith Appling has been an effective player off the bench at times this season for Michigan State. He had 10 points against the Lions in East Lansing and put that same number up against Purdue on Friday. He can be a pain in the butt and Penn State needs to have an eye on him when he gets on the floor in this one.
- Perhaps the biggest difference between Penn State's two games against Michigan State this season was its +4 rebounding margin in the victory and -12 rebounding margin in the loss. The Lions have to hit the glass. If they don't, the Spartans will get second chances like crazy and make quick work of Talor Battle and Co. in East Lansing.
When Penn State Has The Ball
- Talor Battle has been a combined 6-30 in Indianapolis so far this week. He's made shots when the team has needed him to, but he hasn't taken over the game as he has so many times over the years and ruined the other team's chances on his own. If ever there was a time for that, it would be now. With everything on the line, Penn State's star needs to respond.
- Penn State really spread the scoring bwhen it picked up the win in January. All four senior starters finished in double figures and Jermaine Marshall had eight points off the bench. A balanced attack will probably give the Spartans fits again, so everyone on the floor needs to get their fair share of touches. The blueprint to beating this team is there, the Lions just need to follow it.
- If Penn State gets an early lead, it'd be nice to see the Lions avoid testing it as hard as they have in the last two games. Up 8-0 against Indiana and up 18-2 against Wisconsin, Penn State frittered its early advantages against both teams, allowing the Hoosiers and Badgers to come back and at least tie the contests. The Lions have been playing with fire. Now would be a terrible time to get burnt.
There aren't many things in college basketball more difficult than beating Tom Izzo and Michigan State in March. The Spartans have earned all the headlines of their last two tournament runs for a reason: they're good and they know it. At the same time, the Lions earned their fair share this season as well, and for that reason, they'll don the white jerseys in this game. It might be little more than symbolic, but Penn State is the higher seed and needs to play with the confidence that should come with that. The Lions are good, too, and the stage is their to prove it to the world. Time to get it done and lock up a bid. A decade's wait is long enough.