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Penn State at Northwestern Preview: Not Your Father's Wildcats

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A weak non-conference schedule has left Northwestern with little margin for error, and a loss at the hands of Penn State would put a damper on their NCAA tournament hopes.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
Who: Northwestern Wildcats (15-3, 3-2)
When: Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Welsh-Ryan Arena
TV: ESPNU
KenPom Rank: 51
Vegas Line: NU -10
Enemy Blog: Inside NU

The ESPNU classic is back this weekend, as Penn State travels to Evanston on Saturday night to take on what is perhaps the best Northwestern team in school history. The Wildcats are 15-3 but far from locks for the big dance - neither CBS nor ESPN have NU among their "next four in" as of Friday - so a home loss to Penn State would be borderline catastrophic for their tourney hopes.

Fortunately for Chris Collins and co., the Josh Reaves-less Nittany Lions won't present much of a threat in their current form. Sure, they came from behind to beat Minnesota two weeks ago, but that looks increasingly less impressive as the Gophers continually show that they are the worst team in the conference not named Rutgers. Otherwise, Pat Chambers' transitional bunch has been outscored by an average of 18.3 points in their four losses.

Scouting The Opposition

The blower-outers in those four PSU losses are all ranked in the top-30 of KenPom. At 51st, Northwestern is not all that far behind. The Wildcats excel in a number of key areas of the game, and they aren't the paper tiger their RPI ranking (95th) would indicate.

Collins has always been a defensive-minded coach, but he's finally got Northwestern's offense back to its Bill Carmody-era levels of efficiency. A lot of their success can be attributed to their dynamic sophomore point guard, Bryant McIntosh. Ranked seventh nationally in assist rate, McIntosh was given the keys to the car from day one in Evanston and his progression has been a sight to behold for Northwestern fans. Inside NU has an excellent feature on the all-B1G candidate that is worth your time.

Also bolstering the offense is a trio of competent outside threats led by catch-and-shoot gawd Aaron Falzon. The freshman from Massachusetts is connecting on 39 percent of his threes in his first season and is the main candidate to be Guy That Hits Six Threes Against Penn State's Ineffective Perimeter Defense. He's already torched Minnesota and Nebraska for a combined 10 threes this season.

Should Falzon and his shooting compatriots Scottie Lindsay and Nate Taphorn fail to find their range on Saturday, Penn State should be able to defend without fouling relatively easily. Aside from McIntosh and perhaps Tre Demps (when he's not settling for mid-range jumpers), Northwestern doesn't have many slashers that can consistently get to the line. It's a big ask for a struggling PSU defense, especially without Reaves jumping into passing lanes, but if they can defend the arc a little they might have a puncher's chance. Brandon Taylor has to continue where he left off against Purdue and Shep Garner has to forget that game ever happened, but the talent gap isn't big enough where it's out of the question that Penn State can at least keep this game tight for a while.

What To Watch For

12.8 point-per-game scorer Alex Olah has missed the Wildcats' last six contests with a foot injury, but may suit up tonight as a game-time decision. But even if he does sit this one out, Northwestern still has a big capable of taking Penn State's frontline to task in freshman Dererk Pardon.

Pardon, who was originally set to redshirt before Olah's injury forced Collins' hand, has been downright outstanding in the role he's been asked to play. He hasn't been able to match the monster 28-12 he put up against Nebraska in the new year, but he's shooting nearly 70 percent from the field and is third in the B1G in offensive rebounding percentage. He's still finding his way on defense but he looks like a real gem for Collins to use this year and build around in the future.

Prediction

Penn State can well and truly derail Northwestern's season here. The Wildcats were always going to need to finish at least .500 in conference play to have a remote shot at the dance after they couldn't topple North Carolina in their only real non-con test, so a loss here would be a borderline disaster. The onus is on the home team, but that one simple fact is why I like Northwestern. Even against Maryland, in a game that was hardly ever in question after the opening few minutes, the home crowd was totally and utterly behind their Wildcats, who look like they believe this is their year. Sure, it'll probably end in heartbreak for them in the end - it's still Northwestern, dummy - but I don't think this is where the fairy tale goes off script. Northwestern 64, Penn State 55.