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Penn State vs Purdue Preview: Lions Look To End Slide Versus Upstart Boilers

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There aren't many chances left to improve on last year's 0-6 start to conference play.

Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports
Who: Purdue Boilermakers (10-7, 2-2)
When: Tomorrow, 1:00 PM
Where: Bryce Jordan Center
TV: ESPNU
KenPom Rank: 77
Vegas Line: TBD, PSU -1 via KenPom
Enemy Blog: Hammer & Rails

It didn't take very long for the tires to blow flat on Penn State's 12-1 start to the season. The Lions did open their conference schedule with three of four on the road, but no matter how you try to spin it, 0-4 is 0-4. For the third year in the row, the Lions have begun Big Ten play on an extended losing streak. After rattling off 14 straight losses in the Tim Frazier-less 2013 campaign, Penn State also began last year on a maddening six game slide. If Penn State is to improve on their early January struggles this season, it will have to start by winning this game.

Scouting The Opposition

Matt Painter's program has been stuck in neutral since the last of the Baby Boilers graduated from West Lafayette. This appears to be the third year in a row Purdue will miss the NCAA tournament and finish outside of the KenPom Top-50 after a so-so non-conference campaign. The Boilers only went 8-5 with losses to the likes of North Florida and Gardner-Webb in Mackey Arena.

However, Purdue is far from without hope. A promising freshman class has lived to the hype and immediately paid dividends for Painter. Four true freshmen have been valuable contributors from day one, including 7-footer Isaac Haas and Vincent Edwards (younger brother of former Nittany Lion, Bill Edwards). Haas has teamed up with junior AJ Hammons to give the Boilers two 7-footers that are capable of having the offense flow through them. They combine for 20.2 PPG and 10.6 RPG, while both eat roughly 30% of Purdue's possessions when they're on the floor.

Aside from Purdue's two-headed monster in the paint, they are flanked by complementary wing players that are efficient scorers in their own right. Edwards has been tremendous for a freshman at the four position, averaging 9.9 PPG and 5.7 RPG while scoring at a rate of 1.23 PPP. Sophomore Kendall Stephens is technically Purdue's leading scorer at 10.9 PPG and is the Boilers' primary marksman from deep (42%, 2.5 3PM per game). Meanwhile, junior wing Rapheal Davis and late graduate transfer Jon Octeus (who joined the Boilers in September from Colorado State) are capable drivers who get themselves to the foul line often (Davis' 64.2 free throw rate is 79th in the country per KenPom).

But Purdue's recent struggles have primarily been on the defensive side of the ball, once a staple for Matt Painter's teams. They aren't a formidable crew on that side of the ball once again with an adjusted defensive efficiency outside of KenPom's Top-100. In fact, their defensive numbers are quite similar in comparison to Penn State's. Both team's frontcourts are capable shot blockers, but only when they don't commit fouls when trying to block shots. PSU's foul troubles are well-documented in their 243rd-ranked defensive free throw rate, but Purdue's ranks just behind the Lions at 245.

What To Watch For

For Penn State, how they defend will determine the outcome of the game. Other than the Rutgers anomaly, Penn State has had big issues defending against their other three conference opponents as Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana all posted scoring efficiencies greater than 1.10 PPP in their wins over PSU. That kind of paper-soft defense will never win Big Ten games.

Purdue's size will surely put tremendous pressure on the Nittany Lions' foul-plagued front court, but this game could come down to the officials. Neither team relies on their perimeter attack, so who has the most foul trouble could have the biggest influence in this game. DJ Newbill will need to be much more effective at his bread-and-butter, attacking the basket and getting to the foul line. Only two second-half points and three total attempted free throws didn't cut it against Indiana and it won't either against Purdue.

Prediction

This game seems to be a toss-up on paper. Purdue has a developing core that has given the program promise once again, but Penn State needs to be able to defend their home court against a team much less-experienced than themselves. I'll take the Lions in a sloppy, but entertaining 68-65 win. However, I will not reveal my confidence level on that prediction.