|Tuesday, Feburary 7th, 6:00 PM EST
|Bryce Jordan Center (University Park, PA)
|20-3, 8-2 Big Ten
Nobody is confusing this Rutgers squad with the Fab Five, but they are certainly improved over the previous two seasons. The Scarlet Knights have already eclipsed their seven wins from last season, and are one win away from matching Eddie Jordan’s largest total of 12 wins. They look to accomplish that against a Penn State squad reeling from the embarrassment at home to Northwestern.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the manner in which they achieved their 11 wins so far this season is by having one of the worst non-conference slates of the season (ranked 346 on KenPom), which is not too dissimilar from Penn State’s own 12-1 non-conference record in 2014. We all know how that Big Ten slate turned out. That aside, this team is leaps and bounds better than last year’s discomposure of a squad, coupled with the RAC being one of the, if not the worst venues in the Big Ten, will prove to be a surprising challenge for the Nittany Lions as they bring in the new year.
Scouting the Opposition
Corey Sanders is still the heart and soul of this Rutgers team, but so far he’s nowhere near as effective has he was the previous season. His eFG% through 14 games is an abysmal 39.1, and when considering his 70% usage, and his 26.1% of shots taken, it becomes quite concerning for the Rutgers faithful. To make matters worse, Sanders is only shooting 15% from three (on 20 attempts), a figure that will have to improve quickly if Rutgers wants to avoid finishing dead last in the Big Ten for a third straight season. All that said, Sanders is still a phenomenal player that can make teams pay if they don’t account for him, so the Nittany Lions need to be aware of his ability at all times.
What’s different for Rutgers this season is that Sanders isn’t going at it alone. Kansas State transfer Nigel Johnson has done a respectable job with the Knights, having a slightly better eFG% (43.2) than Sanders himself, as well as a better 3pt%, on almost the same usage. Mike Williams, however, is Rutgers’ most efficient player so far, having a 58.6 eFG% on 63.5% of minutes, with a good-but-not-great 36.8% rate from three.
Rutgers has three big men who could pose trouble for the Lions in CJ Gettys, Candido Sa, and Issa Thiam, so Mike Watkins and Julian Moore will need to make sure they stay out of foul trouble in order avoid having the game turn into a three-point contest for the Lions.
What to watch For
Was the Northwestern game a wake-up call? Will the team that easily dispatched of St. John’s show up? Will Julian Moore get over his funk? Can Payton Banks and Shep Garner come back? These are all questions that need to be answered moving forward, but are especially important in this game. Penn State cannot afford to lose another game against similar competition if it wants to stay out of the basement this season.
It will be interesting to see what Chambers has planned to mitigate the lapses on defense that have become commonplace with this squad. If Penn State finds itself in a similar cold streak to what we’ve seen often this season, it will be imperative that they don’t, in turn, aggravate the situation by allowing easy shots on the other end. The scheme that worked well in the first six minutes of the second half against Northwestern will be required for the full game, and if that means slowing down the pace some, then please, by all means, slow it down.
This game shouldn’t even be a question in theory, but the reality of the matter right now is that Penn State is in no position to take any opponent lightly. I think the Northwestern game will light a spark under this team, and they go out and play with their heads on fire on Sunday. However, no team fixes all their issues in one game, so this will remain close throughout.
Penn State 78, Rutgers 75.