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Penn State vs. Michigan State Preview: Lions Still Looking For First Conference Win This Year

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The Nittany Lions will look to snap their Big Ten losing streak on Wednesday when they take on Tom Izzo's Spartans.

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
Who: Michigan State Spartans (12-6, 3-2)
When: Today, 7:00 P.M.
Where: Breslin Center
TV: BTN
KenPom Rank: 23
Vegas Line: TBD, MSU -14 via KenPom
Enemy Blog: The Only Colors

Ah, Penn State basketball. What a fickle thing you are. You go from "hey, 12-1 and maybe we're going somewhere this year!" to finding a way to lose when you're up three against Purdue with less than 10 seconds left.

Of course, when you're on a slide and desperately need a win, the last thing you want to do is go on the road to maybe the toughest place to play in the conference. Because Penn State basketball, that's the case on Wednesday, as PSU has to travel to the Breslin Center to take on Michigan State. The good news is that this is a down year for Tom Izzo's Spartans, and they have shown that they are prone to having bad games and losing to inferior opponents. The bad news is that they are still better than the Nittany Lions, and a LOT of things would need to happen for PSU to pull the upset.

Scouting The Opponent

As I said in the intro, Michigan State is having a bit of a down year. This is to be expected, as the team had to find a way to replace two of the best players in the Big Ten last year: guard Gary Harris and big man Adreian Payne. The Spartans also needed to figure out how they were going to replace guard Keith Appling, along with talented big man Kenny Kaminski, who wasn't great, but had the potential to be a devastating stretch-4.

The guy who was expected to step up and take over this team was guard/forward Branden Dawson. He was spectacular in the Big Ten Tournament last year, and was actually named the event's best player. However, he's struggled a bit this year as he's worked to come back from a pesky wrist injury. Still, he's tough and physical on the defensive end, and he's averaging 11.5 points and 9.5 rebounds a night.

The Spartans have been led this year by one of the most solid backcourts in the country in junior Denzel Valentine and senior Travis Trice. Valentine leads Michigan State with 13.9 points per game, while Trice is dropping 13.8 a night on opponents. While Valentine has been the better rebounder -- he's averaging 5.9 a night compared to Trice's 3.3 per contest -- Trice has the leg up in assists (5.8 to 4.2) and steals (1.2 to 0.8) per game.

While Michigan State's record isn't what you'd expect, KenPom loves them. Sparty has lost to one team outside of KemPom top-20 (we'll get to that a bit later), and the team is especially awesome in regards to effective field goal percentage. The squad has an eFG% of 54.5 percent (22nd best in America). Its eFG% defense is also spectacular, as it is 19th nationally 43.2 percent.

The place where MSU really struggles is from the free throw line. It's, like, really bad at the stripe, as it is shooting a paltry 63.2 percent from the line, which is 320th nationally. There are 351 college basketball teams. That is bad. Basically, if this turns into a free throw shooting contest, Penn State has a shot.

What To Watch For

As we mentioned on the podcast, watch for how the Spartans attack D.J. Newbill on both ends of the court. Izzo is the best coach in the conference and one of the five best coaches in America. He knows that if you want to beat Penn State, you have to make Newbill a non-factor. I'd be shocked if Newbill doesn't get a healthy dose of Dawsen when PSU is on offense, and if the Spartans don't attack him and hope he picks up fouls on defense. Michigan State knows that everything goes through Newbill, so it makes sense that it will do everything it can to make him a non-factor and dare the rest of the squad to make big plays.

If Penn State wants to win, it needs to look at what happened during MSU's game against Texas Southern. The game took place earlier this year in the Breslin Center, and the Tigers took down the Spartans in overtime, 71-64. It took a great shooting night by TSU (53.2 percent from the field) and a horrible shooting night by MSU (39.3 percent from the field, 57.1 percent from the line).

This, along with a few other things -- PSU needs to shoot better than 4-for-12 from three (TSU's number against the Spartans) and not get killed on the boards (MSU 40, TSU 28) -- need to happen for PSU to have a shot. However, that's probably not going to happen.

Prediction

Michigan State is a better, more talented team. It has depth and talent and the home court advantage against a team that hasn't shown that it has depth or talent (outside of Newbill) or the home court advantage. Penn State needs at least three guys other than Newbill to have big games, and I just don't know where that would come from, especially considering the recent form of, well, everyone not named "D.J. Newbill." Give me Michigan State, 71-54.