The last time these two teams met (February 4 of last year, to be exact), they came into the game under similar, but yet different, circumstances. Penn State would be exhausted, coming off a triple-overtime loss to Indiana on the road a few days prior. Rutgers, having already lost plenty of Big Ten games by that point, was coming in hungry for any positive momentum.
Fast forward to this year, and the Nittany Lions will still come into this exhausted, but this time it’s because they have a quick turnaround after taking down the number 13 team in the country on the road. The Scarlet Knights, though, are still in desperation mode, looking for any and all wins at this point, hoping to avoid the first day of the Big Ten Tournament.
This Rutgers squad is not much different from last season’s, insofar as they will grind the game down to a halt and force opponents to be great on offense in order to beat them. Their deficiency from last season remains though, and that is their inability to match offensive efficiency with defensive tenacity. They’re getting better, but they’re not there just yet.
Scouting the opposition
Two of Rutgers’ most prolific players from last season are back and they’re having very productive years, all things considered. Corey Sanders spends nearly the entire game on the floor, and for good reason. He, along with Geo Baker, spend a hair over 80% of the Scarlet Knights’ minutes on the floor. Issa Thiam and Deshawn Freeman spend 70 and 66 precent of Rutgers’ minutes on the floor, respectively. After Eugene Omoruyi (who’s on the floor 52.6 of the time), the rates go down substantially. Like Penn State, Rutgers is heavily reliant on their starters. Unlike Penn State, their offense leaves much to be desired.
Thiam’s 40.7% and Baker’s 36.8% are the two best three-point rates on the team, with the next closest being Sanders at 23%.* Compare that to Penn State’s best three shooters, Tony Carr at 45.7%, Shep Garner at 42.1%, and Josh Reaves at 42%, and you may have an idea where this game will be won.
What to watch for
Ball movement - Penn State only had 10 assists in the game against Ohio State, but they rarely looked stagnant, waiting for something to happen. If they can continue to move the ball, and themselves, with the same vigor as on Thursday night, good things will happen.
Josh Reaves the spark plug - Speaking of vigor, this team looks different with Reaves in the lineup. Reaves was eased into the game after being out for two weeks, but you could tell right away that simply having him around made this team play more confidently. Now it’s time to continue that momentum in a short turnaround.
Tony the smart hero - Carr took his shots, as he always does, but what looked different this time around is that he didn’t just drive the ball to the hoop recklessly trying to take over a game. He made the smart decision to give up the ball when he didn’t think he had a shot, but took his when he thought he did. If he can do this on Saturday, this game should not be a contest.
Two in a row? - Penn State hadn’t lost two conference games in a row until last week (they hadn’t lost two games in a row period), but they also havent won two conference games in a row either. Can they make it a first?
The combination of having taken down the number 13 team in the land on the road, and the bitter taste of having lost to Rutgers last season at home, make it really tough for me to envision a reality where the Nittany Lions don’t play inspired basketball. Having the biggest crowd they’ll see all season certainly won’t hurt either. Penn State 87, Rutgers 66.
*Mike Williams is technically above Sanders at 24.1%, but he won’t be playing in this game.