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Penn State Hoops at the Las Vegas Classic: Previewing the Field

The Lions will face Colorado on Tuesday with hopes of meeting Larry Brown's SMU in the final on Wednesday evening.

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Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The annual preseason tournament trip usually comes at an earlier date for Penn State, but this year the Nittany Lions will spend their Christmas week in Sin City. The Las Vegas Classic presents an opportunity for a young team to show how much they've improved since the start of the season, but the flipside to that coin is the daunting task of playing two games in two days against good teams (or, at least, two teams that are demonstrably better than them). Here's how Penn State stacks up with the field:

Game 1: Tuesday, 10:30 p.m. ET (No TV) - vs. Colorado (10-1)

How a game between two major-conference teams in the year 2015 is not televised is beyond me, but alas. If you want to follow along you'll probably have to get your fill through Steve Jones and Dick Jerardi on the radio (stream here).

As for the Buffaloes, (which, what the hell, "buffalo" is already plural), they're likely the best team Penn State will have to face in the non-conference portion of the schedule. Tad Boyle's squad has but one loss, a six-point defeat to Iowa State in their season opener, and while they ain't really played nobody of note so far their numbers indicate that they're a pretty solid team. Por ejemplo, a small sampling of Colorado's statistical successes so far this season:

Colorado Nat'l Avg
Off. eFG% 54.1% 49.4%
Off. 3pt% 40.0% 34.3%
Def. Blk% 14.9% 9.3%
Opp. Off. Reb% 24.2% 30.4%

For those unfamiliar with possession-based numbers: Colorado can shoot the rock, protect the rim, and prevent second chances with the best of them. Penn State doesn't matchup terribly well against teams that can shoot (Duquesne, Radford), and they've also had trouble finding easy buckets in their slow-tempo approach. That task won't be easy against a frontline led by Wesley Gordon and star center Josh Scott, who's nearly averaging a 20-10 this season. The Nittany Lions are actually 33rd nationally in defensive 2pt%, but they haven't faced many big men of Scott's quality.

Prediction: Colorado is untested, to be sure, but it's not as though Penn State has faced anybody worth mentioning either, maybe outside of George Washington. Teams have had success from deep against PSU and it won't be a coincidence if the Buffs light up the Vegas strip with their shooting on Tuesday. I'll take Colorado to cover with ease, 76-62.

Game 2: Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. (L vs. Colorado) or 10:30 p.m. (W vs. Colorado), FS1

Possible Opponent 1: #18 SMU Mustangs (9-0)

Larry Brown is back on the bench against Kent State after serving his nine-game suspension for eligibility fraud, which also got SMU banned from postseason play. A shame, really, because the Mustangs are good enough to do some damage in March - they currently sport the nation's 8th most efficient offense per KenPom and they aren't shabby on the defensive end either. To put their offense in perspective, SMU's least efficient player in the regular rotation - Keith Frazier, with an ORtg of 116.9 (nice) - would be Penn State's most efficient player (Julian Moore's 115.4 ORtg leads PSU, if you were curious).

What makes SMU so efficient? Not only do they shoot it well (59.3% eFG), they get the shots they don't make. Led by human shooting gun Jordan Tolbert, the Mustangs lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, grabbing offensive boards on a stunning 47.3% of possessions. If Penn State does get the opportunity to face SMU in the final, they'll have to protect the defensive glass like crazy. Not to mention they'll have the task of stopping Nic Moore

Prediction (if they play): A fun comment section!

Possible Opponent 2: Kent State Golden Flashes (7-2)

While the Flashes are much more manageable of an opponent than SMU, this would be no gimme game for Penn State. MAC teams have had success against the Lions in preseason tournaments before (see: Akron, 2012). Like PSU, Kent State has defeated a streaky Canisius team already this year, 84-77, but otherwise haven't really defeated anyone of note. No matter who Penn State faces on Wednesday, they'll have to stay alert on the defensive glass - Kent State is currently 27th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, though they're still nowhere near SMU.

The Flashes aren't the harbingers of offensive efficiency that the Mustangs are, but the trio of Jimmy Hall, Kellon Thomas and Xavier Powell are all capable of big nights. Hall and Powell both had 20+ points at Pitt in a nine-point defeat, while Thomas hit six of his nine three-point attempts against NJIT, which helped Kent State pull off a five-point win in Newark to give KSU their best win thus far.

Prediction (if they play): My head says to pick Kent State (who is nearly 50 ranks above Penn State in KenPom, by the way), but my gut says that Pat Chambers can rally his troops to a third-place finish in Vegas. Let's go with 67-65 in the Nittany Lions' favor, with Payton Banks reprising his heroic role.