Game 9 Preview: Penn State vs. Pittsburgh Panthers in Big Ten/ACC Challenge

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Nittany Lions return to the Pete for the first time since 2005. Hopefully it goes much better than the last time (a 37-point defeat).

Who: Pitt Panthers (7-0)
When: Tonight, 7:30pm
Where: Peterson Events Center
TV: ESPNU
KenPom Rank: #3
Vegas Line: Pitt -14
Enemy Blog: Cardiac Hill

Coming off an encouraging performance in New York, the Nittany Lions now head to Pittsburgh for the much-anticipated Big Ten/ACC Challenge contest against Jamie Dixon's Panthers. For some reason, Pitt has yet to enter the AP/Coach's polls this season, but the computer rankings love them, as evidenced by their lofty KenPom rating. They've started 7-0 on the year, winning the Legends Classic (also at the Barclays Center) by easily dispatching of Texas Tech and Stanford.

Scouting The Opposition

Pitt lost quite a bit from last year's 24-9 club (that once again completely under-performed in both their conference tourney and the Big Dance), including NBA first-rounder, Steven Adams. In total, 5 major contributors in their 10-man rotation either graduated or transferred. While it's hard for a program who has made 12 of the last 13 NCAA tournaments to fly under the radar, the Panthers were somewhat of an unknown coming into their first season as an ACC member.

However, Jamie Dixon's program hasn't slowed one bit this year and looks primed to contend for their first ACC title. Many of their backups and role players have flourished in their expanded roles so far this campaign. Their attack begins with 6'5" senior Lamar Patterson of Lancaster. Patterson has had a flawless start to his senior campaign, posting a 137.0 ORtg while using 27.8% (!) of his team's possessions. He can score (59.6% eFG% on 28% shot%), he can distribute (39.5 ARate, 11th in the country), and he gets involved on the boards (4.9 RPG).

Patterson's not the only weapon Pitt has in its arsenal. The Panthers have a total of four guys who are averaging in double figures, while seven players produce at least 6 points a game. Over 63% of their made field goals have been assisted, which doesn't even account for put-back opportunities since Pitt is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country (42.5% OReb%). All-in-all, the Panthers sport the 6th best adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom.

The Panthers' rotation is 10-deep with a core group of upperclassmen in Patterson, senior Talib Zanna, and redshirt junior Cameron Wright. Zanna holds down the interior and averages 12.7 PPG and 6.8 RPG. Wright's a slashing 2-guard who does most of his damage attacking the rim. He is coming off a career-high 20-point performance against Duquesne on Saturday. Sophomore James Robinson runs the show at the point, but is much more a facilitator than scorer. Fellow sophomore Durand Johnson is the sixth man off the bench, but he is one of Pitt's biggest threats from the perimeter. Four freshmen have also been getting significant run, including starter Michael Young (former AAU teammate with Geno Thorpe).

Defensively, the new emphasis on hand-checking hasn't deterred the Panthers' physical defense. They are still forcing plenty of turnovers (21.8%) while only committing 18 fouls a game (national average is 20). They also defend the boards with abandon, only allowing opponents to grab 24% of their misses. Overall, their adjusted defensive efficiency is ranked 11th in the country.

Key Matchup

The biggest key for Penn State is how much they can fight for rebounds. Statistically as a team, PSU has excelled so far in this department, but they've been susceptible to offensive rebounds at bad times in their games at the Barclays Center. Pitt seems to hold a significant edge with their size and athleticism up front. It's going to be hard enough for PSU to force missed shots from the Panthers, so if they're unable to close out possessions by grabbing the rebound, the Lions could be in for a long night.

For Penn State to pull off the shocker, they're going to need to outscore Pittsburgh, and the one way PSU might be able to do the impossible is from the three-point line. The Nittany Lions have been very steady from beyond the arc, never shooting <35% as a team in any game this year. They've consistently made just under nine 3PM a game, but if they're able to sink 12-13 in this game, it might make things interesting.

Prediction

Pitt is 105-3 (.972) in the Peterson Events Center versus non-conference opponents and 184-22 all-time (.893) since it opened in 2002. They are very tough to beat in this building and while I'm as on board with this Penn State team as any other, some of the sport's best teams have gone into this venue and come out losers.

I think Penn State can definitely hang in with Pitt, especially if the offense continues sinking shots at their current clip, but Pitt will just wear down PSU (who is playing their 5th game in 10 days) and win going away, 80-69.

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