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Penn State at Northwestern Preview: Lions Get First Look at Collins-Era Wildcats

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Northwestern has lost six in a row but that's no reason for Pat Chambers and co. to take this defense lightly.

Jonathan Daniel
Who: Northwestern Wildcats (12-17, 5-11)
When: Thursday, 7pm ET
Where: Welsh-Ryan Arena
TV: ESPNU
KenPom Rank: 131
Vegas Line: Even
Enemy Blog: Sippin' On Purple

Penn State couldn't have picked a better time to play Northwestern. Losers of six straight, Chris Collins' bunch are struggling to rediscover the magic formula that helped them score a number of upsets, most notably their late January win in the Kohl Center. The loss of second-leading scorer JerShon Cobb for the remainder of the season is about the last thing they needed considering they are dead last in the conference in offensive production and 305th nationally in offensive efficiency. Although, it's not as though their scoring prowess is what helped them win all those games - the Wildcats are one of the best defensive outfits in the nation, sitting at 14th in the country in defensive efficiency (per KenPom).

Scouting The Opposition

I'll refrain from making a tired joke about how long Drew Crawford has been playing college basketball in Evanston, but he is the B1G's active leading scorer and, without Cobb, he's one of the only players Penn State has to gameplan for on defense. Crawford is having one of worst years statistically (shooting a career-low 46% on twos), but he's still capable of going off on any given night. Another Wildcat enigma is sixth-man Tre Demps, who averages 11.1 ppg but shoots under 40% from the floor. He's similar to John Johnson in his shot selection and like Johnson, when he gets hot he's hard to contain.

Northwestern's height and physicality is what separates them on the defensive end, and that freedom is aided by the presence of 7-footer Alex Olah, who ranks fourth in the conference in blocks at 1.9 per game. Collins has favored a tall lineup since Dave Sobolewski's fall from grace, though the junor did get a start in Cobb's absence against Nebraska on Saturday. They do commit their fair share of fouls though (11 NW players have fouled out this season) and this is where D.J. Newbill should be look to do his damage.

Key Matchup

Tim Frazier has been struggling to hit shots from open play of late, but if Sobolewski gets more than the 13 minutes he got in Northwestern's last game then I expect Frazier to get back on track. Sobolewski commits 3.9 fouls per 40 minutes and Timmy put up 23 points and 8 assists against him the last time they faced off. Collins will likely throw Demps on Frazier the rest of the time and that's another battle the Penn State guard should win easily by pushing the ball in transition. If not, then the Lions could be forced to play the sluggish and disjointed halfcourt game that the Wildcats so love to play.

Prediction

Northwestern is pretty objectively the least talented team in the conference, but that hasn't stopped them from beating far better teams than PSU. Fortunately for the Nittany Lions though, they have experience in getting buckets against exceptional defensive teams (read: Ohio State). It'll come down to whether Crawford and/or Demps can keep pace with comparative offensive juggernaut that is Penn State's entire offense, and in that case I like the visitors' chances. Pat Chambers gets his second win in Evanston in as many years, 63-57.