If you’ve been paying attention, the Big Ten is 1-6 agains the ACC in the challenge. All but two games have been close, one of them (Northwestern/Georgia Tech) coming down to a buzzer beater.
What that means for Penn State is that, unfortunately, they can’t afford any more non-conference losses if they want to build a tournament resume. With the Big Ten being more down this season than anyone could have anticipated, winning a couple of conference games may not be enough, as we all thought at the beginning of the season. That’s the bad news.
The good news, on the other hand, is that the Nittany Lions should be able to compete in the Big Ten, because outside of Michigan State and Minnesota, no other team has looked capable holding on to their positioning in the Big Ten. In fact, the only blowout losses so far in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge have been by Penn State’s next two opponents.
Onto the game at hand, the NC State Wolfpack have actually performed better than anticipated so far, having beaten Arizona in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, which may have been the catalyst in the Wildcats’ tailspin out of the rankings. Penn State, for its own merits, is on a three-game winning streak in the challenge, and looking to make it four in a row.
Scouting the Opposition
The Wolfpack does a lot of things Penn State does well, so it will be fun to see who can execute their game plan effectively. NC State ranks 24th in turnovers forced, while the Nittany Lions ranked 19th. The Pack also ranks 24th in steals per game, while the Lions rank 5th.
Leonard Freeman, who’s getting healthier by the day, will be a good matchup for Mike Watkins inside. He, along with Omer Yurtseven, should provide a good enough test for our big men, contributing 54.6 and 48.6 percent of minutes used, respectively. Yurtseven has an offensive rebound percentage of 18.6 to go along with Freeman’s 9.0 OR%, so it will be imperative for the Nittany Lions to ensure they stay far, far away from the offensive glass.
Another Freeman to watch out for is Allerik Freeman, NC State’s leading scorer and most used player. Freeman’s assist rate of 11.4 is a far cry from that of Tony Carr’s, but still good enough to burn you if you’re not guarding him properly.
The Wolfpack is not a particularly effective outside shooting team, so most of the concern will come from inside. If the Nittany Lions can force NC State to make contested jump shots, they should have an easy time in Raleigh.
What to watch for
Can the Lions force them outside - As mentioned just above, NC State’s 3-point shooting percentage, as a team, is 27.5%. Only one player has taken more than 30 shots from three this season, the aforementioned Allerik Freeman, and he’s shooting at a 23.7 clip. Sam Hunt is next best at 29 attempts, good for 27.6% on the year. If Penn State prevents the Wolfpack from getting easy buckets inside, it may be a long night for the hosts.
Outside shooting of their own - Shep Garner has been hot and cold so far this season, settling in at 33% on the year. Can he have an Columbia or Montana night, where he shot nearly 50% from behind the arc, or will he have a Texas A&M or Oral Roberts night, where he went 4-14, a cool 28%. Garner’s effectiveness outside could decide whether this is a battle to the end or a laugher.
Big men do big things - Mike Watkins, Satchel Pierce, and Julian Moore have their work cut out for them tonight. How well they can protect the rim, especially on defense, will make a big difference in this game. It is especially imperative for Pierce and Moore to provide good minutes when Watkins needs a rest, as those will be the times where NC State will try to take advantage.
Keep the streak alive - Can Penn State join the likes of Duke, North Carolina, and Michigan State, in being one of the few teams to hold a streak of longer than three games in the challenge? We shall soon find out. With a win, they would also join Purdue as the only two teams with a winning record in the series.
Penn State needs all the help it can get when it comes to making the tournament. This game would go a long way in providing that help, as the Wolfpack have been better than anticipated so far. Road games are hard to win regardless, but look for Penn State to get it done. Penn State 75, NC State 71