Penn State Men's Basketball has just finished a non-conference slate that saw PSU win 9 games, which to some came as a pleasant surprise, but it also saw a low point or two in its 4 losses. However, a consecutive season of a seemingly down Big Ten Conference has PSU currently situated in 8th in this 14 team Conference, which if sustained through Conference play would have Penn State situated on the NCAA Bubble, and likely an NIT team at worst. The true question thus becomes, can PSU sustain its place in the standings, and finish out 2015-2016 better than most expected?
How We Got Here
As has become the norm under Pat Chambers, Penn State had one of the weaker non-Conference schedules for a P5 Conference team. PSU has the 204th ranked SOS in the NCAA. Using KenPom's rankings as a guide, PSU's toughest non-conference opponent this season was Colorado (44), who took PSU down by a mere point after a thrilling PSU comeback. Otherwise, PSU's remaining three losses came against a respectable George Washington team (69 - nice) on the road, but then two stinkers to Duquesne (137) followed by Radford (185), both of which were by double-digits. PSU's rough patches were often marred by poor perimeter defense and a lack of ability to box out and claim rebounds. PSU unsurprisingly has persisted with committing fouls, and Pat's track record of sitting players indefinitely once they pick up a second first half foul, has often hurt us in games (see Duquesne).
Alternatively, PSU's non-conference has been hindered by a true lack of a marquee win. Had the chips fallen the other way against Colorado, then PSU would have that game to hang their hat on (with an even bigger chance against Larry Brown's SMU), but considering how poorly Colorado played in the first half, that would likely have stood for an undeserved win at that. As things stand, PSU's best win has come against Kent State, which is only the 115th ranked team by KenPom. This is a scary proposition as there are only 3 B1G teams currently ranked that low (Rutgers, Minnesota, Nebraska) and PSU has shown that they can lose games to teams much worse than Kent State. Pat & co. will certainly need to elevate their respective games in order to earn anything other than a game on Day 1 of the B1G Tournament come March.
Who Will Lead The Way
With the graduation of one of the program's all-time greats in DJ Newbill last season, the need arose for the team to collectively rise up and fill that offensive void.
Has this been accomplished? Well, yes and no.
PSU has three players averaging double digit scoring: Taylor - 16.2 PPG, Garner - 14.7, Banks - 11.7. The more telling figure would be shooting %s and FT %s: Taylor - 42.7%/67.6%, Garner - 39.5%/76.7%, Banks - 42.4%/73%. These numbers are not far removed from what DJ averaged last year: 20.7 PPG/45%/75.8%, but one has to understand that the already lower FG%s are only likely to decrease further against better competition in Conference play. This is well-represented by PSU's current adjusted Offensive Efficiency Rating - Ranked 183rd in NCAA. It would appear that PSU's best chance to remain competitive in the B1G is to play tough, gritty defense. Our Defensive Efficiency is currently ranked 80th in the nation, buoyed by the tenacity of Josh Reaves. Jordan Dickerson has an impressive 28 blocks this year, and he's going to have to maintain that output against better post players without committing dumb fouls. Julian Moore will also need to learn to defend B1G bigs without fouling, a prospect that I am less than optimistic about heading into the Conference slate. PSU's lack of ability to defend the 3-point line and poor rebounding make me fearful about the prospects of playing the 2-3 zone against better competition, but our overall lower talent level also makes man-to-man defense a troubling path to success. Ultimately, the entire team is going to have to play with hustle and attitude on every given night, if PSU is going to manage to win more than a couple of games this season.
@ #4 Maryland - PSU opens Conference play on the road against one of the best teams in the nation. Maryland currently lacks a truly elite victory, missing out on that chance by losing @ #9 North Carolina. However, they have very solid wins against UConn (31), Georgetown (74), and Rhode Island (63). Amazingly, nearly every single player on their roster is shooting at or above 50% from the field, including All-B1G candidate Melo Trimble. They have a balanced attack with 5 players averaging double figures, and freakish levels of athleticism which promise to give PSU bundles of difficulty. Apart from a great back-court carried by Trimble and Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon, it is perhaps Maryland's daunting front-court, which will give PSU the most difficulty. True freshman Diamond Stone is averaging 11.2 PPG in only 18.8 MPG, and he is spelled by the competent duo of Damonte Dodd and Michal Cekovsky, both of whom gave PSU difficulty in the post last year. Ultimately, Maryland is a truly balanced offensive juggernaut, who PSU does not match up with well at all. This game is going to be ugly, and PSU will be well-served to escape College Park without completely eviscerating their confidence moving forward in B1G play.
Prediction: PSU 48 - Maryland 79 (9-5; 0-1)
@ Michigan - Things are likely to get better for PSU against Michigan, but a consecutive road game against what's likely to be another top-half team in the B1G likely will yield another tough loss in Conference play. Michigan has two starters who are shooting better than 50% from 3-point land this season (Duncan Robinson, Derrick Walton Jr.). While not remarkable in itself, the fact that Robinson is a 6'8, 210 pound stretch forward shooting 60% from 3 spells all sorts of match-up problems when he goes against PSU. Michigan has the kind of length and athleticism all around that is likely to make this a very difficult night for PSU to put the ball in the net. Michigan's only 3 losses this season have come against likely Tournament teams (SMU, UConn, Xavier), and they have toppled competent foes in Texas and NC. State away from Ann Arbor. While not considered a threat to win the B1G this year, Michigan is improved from last season, and I believe they are a likely tournament team who PSU has little hope of upsetting in game 2 of B1G play.
Prediction: PSU 63 - Michigan 82 (9-6; 0-2)
v Minnesota - The first truly 'winnable game' for PSU hoops comes in Game 3 at home against the lowly Minnesota Gophers. The Gophers have only gotten worse from last season, and currently sit at 6-6 on the season. Pat will circle this game as his big opportunity to avoid an 0-4 B1G start for the first time in his tenure at PSU. The Gophers attack is balanced in that they have 4 players averaging double-digits, led by Senior forward Joey King. Minnesota has one bad loss in double-OT to South Dakota, but otherwise hasn't lost to any teams that couldn't at least threaten to make the Tournament this year. Ultimately, this will be a close game throughout, and I think this one will come down to whether or not PSU can handle the pressure of winning the first B1G game that they are expected to win this season. Opposite of PSU, Minnesota has been better offensively than defensively this year, so the points are likely to be higher than usual. Ultimately, I think the pressure is too much, and PSU's annual trend of poor starts in B1G play will continue here against Minnesota.
Prediction: PSU 71 - Minnesota 73 (9-7; 0-3)
v #1 Michigan State - Surprisingly, I think this game will be as close as PSU gets to springing a large upset this year. Ultimately they'll fall short, but of the big 3 (MSU, Maryland, Purdue), I think Sparty is the team that PSU matches up best against. With Denzel Valentine hobbled, MSU barely escaped a pesky Oakland team at home. Without him, MSU only has one other player averaging double-digits in Bryn Forbes (14.2 PPG). Gavin Schilling, Matt Costello and Deyonta Davis are respectable post players, but offer little to scare us when compared to what Maryland and Purdue bring into the post. If Valentine is out or at least limited by this game, then PSU might actually have a chance to win, but even if he's back, I think PSU responds to the tough Minnesota loss by picking themselves off the mat at home, and playing this one down to the wire.
Prediction: PSU 64 - Michigan State 69 (9-8; 0-4)
@ #14 Purdue - All you need to know heading into this game is that Purdue has 4 players averaging double-figures, and the top 3 of them have the following listed heights (7'0, 7'2, 6'9). Couple this nauseating fact with this game being on the road, and you'll understand why this game will rival the Conference opener as PSU's ugliest outing of the season. Senior Center AJ Hammons, has destroyed PSU in the post in the past, and there's no reason to believe this trend won't continue as Purdue has their best team in years. Highly touted freshman Caleb Swanigan can score inside and out, and pulls down rebounds like it's nobody's business. PSU absolutely has to box out against Purdue or else they're going to double us on the scoreboard, but either way, this one will get ugly.
Prediction: PSU 51 - Purdue 88 (9-9; 0-5)
@ Northwestern - Currently sitting at 12-1, the question is are Northwestern for real, or are they simply the PSU from last season reborn? They lack a truly marquee win, but their only loss was to #9 North Carolina. Like it was for PSU last year, Conference play will be the true measuring stick for this Northwestern team. Buoyed by a potent backcourt, Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps are averaging 31.4 PPG between the two of them. Senior big man Alex Olah is a 7 footer averaging double figures as well who can pass, rebound, block shots, score inside and can even step out and hit the occasional 3-pointer. This year's Northwestern team may not be one to shock the B1G, and displace any of the Big 3, however they certainly have the balance, senior leadership and firepower necessary to do some damage in Conference play. If this game were at home I'd give PSU a chance, but as it stands Northwestern is likely to prove too much both in the backcourt and the front on their home court.
Prediction: PSU 66 - Northwestern 78 (9-10; 0-6)
v Wisconsin - For me, this is the game where PSU finally gets of the snide, against a Bo Ryan-less Wisconsin squad who is certainly down from last year's National Championship team. The losses of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker have clearly taken its toll on this year's squad, something that's only compounded by Ryan's untimely exit. Players like Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, who were mere role players last year, have had to step to the forefront for Wisconsin, and have struggled in the process. Other than the season-opening loss to Western Illinois, Wisconsin does not have any truly terrible losses, but this is a team that PSU traditionally plays well at home against, and without their prominent head coach at the helm, this provides the chance for PSU to grasp their first B1G win of the year.
Prediction: PSU 71 - Wisconsin 63 (10-10; 1-6)
@ Ohio State - Of all the teams in the B1G this year, Ohio State would appear to be the most perplexing. Ohio St. lost 4 straight earlier this year, including games to Texas-Arlington and Louisiana Tech, but these losses no longer seem as devastating, as each of these mid-majors appear poised to make a run at their respective conference championships and an NCAA Tournament birth. More recently, Thad Matta's squad shocked Kentucky in Columbus, in a game that in all honesty was never really that close. Whether this means that UK was overhyped or OSU was underrated, I'm not sure, but in all likelihood I think it's a combination of both of these factors. While OSU is probably down this year, they certainly aren't as bad as their first 6 games of the season would have hinted at. OSU is not a terrific shooting team, but they have a number of Forwards who can bang down low, and create size problems. Against a team like PSU, expect fouls once again to be an early concern. With a pair of 7 footers who are shooting better than 50% on the year, I think OSU gets PSU into foul trouble, and pulls away late at home.
Prediction: PSU 60 - Ohio State 74 (10-11; 1-7)
v Michigan (neutral site) - This is the basketball/hockey doubleheader in NYC, which unfortunately for PSU, forfeits a home game against a tough Michigan squad. See the analysis for the road game above, and expect more of the same in this neutral site showdown where PSU is likely to come up short once again.
Prediction: PSU 57 - Michigan 68 (10-12; 1-8)
@ Iowa - Much like their football team this season, I expect the Hawkeyes to be a sneaky good team in Conference play this year. Iowa has 3 losses on the year to Dayton (43), Notre Dame (32), and Iowa State (19). None of these losses were by more than 6 points. In addition, Iowa has beaten FSU (39), Marquette (85) on the road, and a ranked Wichita State (36) team. PSU killer, Aaron White, may have graduated, but there are certainly enough weapons left on this team to do serious damage in March. 6'9 Senior Jarrod Uthoff is averaging 18.3 PPG. He's not the only threat in the post, as 7'1 Adam Woodbury is a tough player who attacks the boards with ferocity, and leads the team in Offensive Rebounds. Nearly all of the key cogs on this Iowa team are either Juniors or Seniors, and this could prove decisive down the stretch when the games matter most in March. Regardless, this game on the Hawkeyes home court is likely to be one where PSU struggles to match up in the post, and Iowa escapes relatively unscathed.
Prediction: PSU 61 - Iowa 78 (10-13; 1-9)
v Indiana - This is going to be a game that PSU fans likely will look at as a must-win if there is to be any salvaging of the season. This marks the turning point in the Conference slate where games begin to get a little bit easier, and PSU will finally be given the opportunity to pick up some momentum heading towards March. Unfortunately, I think the Hoosiers are just too talented to fall against PSU at BJC. IU has one of the most naturally talented back-courts in the B1G, led by Senior Yogi Ferrell (16.1 PPG) and James Blackmon Jr. (15.8 PPG). It's hard to imagine our defense being able to contain these two, as they both have the ability to create their own shots whenever they want to. True freshman Center Thomas Bryant has given Indiana the presence in the post that their team has lacked in years' past, providing some balance to spell the often guard-heavy offense. With wins already over Notre Dame and then Creighton on the road, this Indiana team has a taste for victory over quality competition, it's now simply a matter of whether Coach Crean can keep his team in order to make a run at the Tournament in March.
Prediction: PSU 68 - Indiana 74 (10-14; 1-10)
@ Nebraska - Certainly a bottom-half team in the B1G this year, PSU should consider itself fortunate to have drawn 2 games against lowly Nebraska this season. This team is only 1 spot behind PSU currently in KenPom's rankings, and both their Offensive and Defensive Efficiency numbers are eerily reminiscent to those of PSU. They're led by the duo of Shavon Shields and Andrew White, a pair of stretch forwards who are the only two players averaging double figures on the team. Similar to PSU, Nebraska lacks a true B1G-caliber post player who the team can rely upon to put the ball into the net. I expect both games between these teams to be tight, and excruciatingly painful games to watch, which end up being low-scoring slugfests. Despite PSU's dire need for a win, I expect this game to go to Nebraska on the basis of home-court advantage alone.
Prediction: PSU 57 - Nebraska 58 (10-15; 1-11)
v Iowa - See description above. I expect PSU to keep this one closer than the road-affair was, but after a deflating loss to Nebraska and with the obviousness of a tanking season on their hands, the team comes out flat at the BJC, and drops yet another one.
Prediction: PSU 62 - Iowa 70 (10-16; 1-12)
@ Rutgers - This year's Rutgers squad appears to be the worst B1G team as we head into Conference play. Sitting at 5-7 currently, Rutgers has yet to record a win against a team in the top half of KenPom's rankings. I watched the first half of their early-season game @ St. John's and that was one of the ugliest halves of basketball I can remember watching in some time. That said, most of their losses have come to decent P5 squads, which lends to the idea that they may not be as bad as their current record suggests. Forward Deshawn Freeman is the team's most consistent scorer, and he has missed their last 6 games due to injury. Once he returns, the team is likely to begin putting down some more consistent results. That said, their Defense Efficiency numbers are bad, and their Offensive numbers are close to the worst in the league. This is not a good basketball team, and even at home, I would expect PSU to be able to knock off the Scarlet Knights this year for their 2nd B1G win on the season.
Prediction: PSU 72 - Rutgers 58 (11-16; 2-12)
v Nebraska - See the description above. Once again these two teams are quite similar in all statistical areas as of now, so games between the two appear to me to be coinflip scenarios. Since I gave Nebraska a 1-point victory on their home court, I return the favor and given PSU their first winning streak in Conference play on the season.
Prediction: PSU 65 - Nebraska 64 (12-16; 3-12)
@ #1 Michigan State - See the description above. Except this time around MSU is likely to have a much healthier version of their best player, and All-American candidate Denzel Valentine on the court. Where I gave PSU a chance to offer an inspiring performance at PSU earlier in the season, this time around I see MSU thoroughly dominating throughout this game, and PSU's brief winning streak coming to an abrupt end.
Prediction: PSU 61 - Michigan State 84 (12-17; 3-13)
v Northwestern - See the description above. At this time in the season, I think Northwestern will have come down to earth a bit. Still however, I think they're going to be right in the thick of the bubble conversation here as we begin March basketball. However, as PSU will have found what its like to win games recently against Rutgers and Nebraska, I think they come to play here against the Wildcats. This is the best chance I see for PSU to notch that true 'upset' win that they are known for getting each season in Conference play. Sadly however, I see Northwestern escaping at the buzzer.
Prediction: PSU 66 - Northwestern 68 (12-18; 3-14)
v Illinois - I see a gritty Illinois team that to me are better than most people give them credit for. Over the past couple of years, this team has dealt with injury after injury to key players, yet they manage to fight on and put up respectable results in one of the Nation's best basketball conferences. Illinois has 5 losses so far on the season, but none of them have come to truly 'bad' teams, and each team that beat them could be playing in the Tournament come March. With a potent back-court led by Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn, Illinois has two players who could both conceivably lead the B1G in scoring this season. Mike Thorne Jr. and Mike Finke are a couple of 7 footers who are also averaging double figures on the season for the Illini. This is the kind of in and out balance that PSU fans would slobber over, and they're doing it in a very quiet way. While the Illini could very well be a bottom-half team in the B1G due as much to misfortune as it is to a lack of talent, I think they come into Happy Valley and end PSU's regular season on a low note, as Taylor's valiant senior-night performance goes unrewarded in a tough loss at home.
Prediction: PSU 67 - Illinois 73 (12-19; 3-15)