For the first time in what seems like an eternity, Penn State opens its conference season without having to:
- Play on the road.
- Play against a team projected to finish at or near the top of the conference.
And while this Northwestern team is a lot better than previous iterations, it’s still a far cry the sorts of teams (at No. 4 Maryland last season, at No. 4 Wisconsin the previous year, and vs No. 5 Michigan State prior to that) Penn State has had to open the conference slate against.
As mentioned above, this isn’t the Northwestern team we’re all accustomed to. This year’s iteration of the Wildcats can legitimately ask “is this the year?” Having amended their scheduling deficiencies from a year ago, they’ve already notched wins against top-100 squads in Dayton, Texas, and Wake Forest, while playing Notre Dame and Butler close. The Wildcats also took care of business against the rest of their schedule, which is something that can’t be said for the Nittany Lions.
There’s a section of folks who still believe that this Northwestern squad suffers from the same symptoms as last season’s, which has made them look much better than they actually are. The Wildcats do have a ton of bottom feeders on their schedule. Unlike Penn State’s distribution of opponents, Northwestern lacks any depth to their out of conference slate. Northwestern’s out of conference SOS is ranked 290th by Kenpom, which is good for 12th in the Big Ten, and that’s including the five aforementioned teams they did play. For comparison, Penn State’s 176th-ranked non-conference SOS is 4th in the Big Ten.
Scouting the Opposition
Bryant McIntosh leads the way for the Wildcats, being utilized on 83.3% of Northwestern’s minutes. His struggles from the 3, however, only yield to a 40.4 eFG%, which is surprising given his experience with the offense, and the fact that this is his third season with the team. His 25.9% from 3 is the lowest rate of any opposing point guard Penn State has faced to date this season with usage as high as McIntosh’s. While his 3-pointer isn't falling right now, the rest of his game remains consistent, having an assist rate of 30.5, and is 87.7% from the line.
What McIntosh is currently lacking in the 3-point department, Scottie Lindsey, Sanjay Lumpkin, and Vic Law make up for. The three have an eFG% of 53.5, 54.8, and 68.6 respectively, with Law having a 44.8% 3-point rate. If Penn State is to stay in the game, it has to make sure that neither of these guys get hot from three. While Dererk Pardon is still questionable for this game, he might not be as impactful of a loss as Alex Olah was at this time last year.
What to Watch For
Will this be the game where McIntosh finds his stroke from outside the arc? Will it matter? Law, Lumpkin and Lindsey seem to be making up on the perimeter front, so the Lions will have to make sure they don’t get burned by those three first and foremost, and let fate take its course with the rest.
We have a blueprint on how to play these guys from last season. In the first meeting, Penn State slowed the pace, forced Northwestern to take a number of shots from outside (which they missed), and made the most of their own possessions. In the second game, they let Northwestern play their own pace, allowing for the inside game to open up the perimeter.
Penn State won’t be playing at a snail’s pace this time around, so they’ll need to avoid any cold shooting streaks which could lead to a big hole early. If they can continue to defend without fouling, especially inside, it may have the same effect as that first game last season. Establish Mike Watkins (and Julian Moore) inside, put their bigs in foul trouble, and force them to play out of their element early. Otherwise, this might be a long day for the Lions.
I happen to think that this is the year for Northwestern, having already played and won against some good non conference opponents. The Big Ten schedule sets up nicely for them, and I truly believe that if they don’t make it this year, it may never happen. However, the quest for an NCAA bid will have to wait a few days, as the Nittany Lions do just enough to come away with then win.
Penn State 81, Northwestern 80.