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Penn State at Michigan State Preview: Can They Do It Again?

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Can Penn State beat a second top 15 team on the road?

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan State vs Penn State Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The ending was so exciting that most forgot Penn State was up 13 late in the second half. Keita Bates-Diop’s heroics, drilling three pointers at rapid pace, made what would have been a sound defeat into a thrilling game. With the thrill of the game came the belief that the Nittany Lions were the team lucky to come out with a win, instead of the Buckeyes being the team lucky to have avoided a blowout.

Penn State now has an opportunity against a better*, deeper, and more talented Michigan State team ready to put its own off-the-field issues aside and play some ball. The Spartans already had their own come-from-behind win on the road, on Sunday against Maryland. Like Ohio State, the Spartans erased a 13-point deficit in the blink of an eye. The difference in that game is that the Spartans were down big at the half, and used a five-minute run to completely dominate its opponent into submission.

Now it’s Penn State’s turn. Can the Nittnay Lions do what Ohio State and Michigan did before, and slay the giant that is Michigan State? Can they prove that last week was not an anomaly, but a sign of things to come? They’ll have the opportunity to do that in a game the experts expect to be over before halftime.

Scouting the opposition

The Spartans have very few weaknesses. Miles Bridges, the best player on the team, is back to form after having a bit of the bad three-game stretch where they lost to both Ohio State and Michigan, as well as almost losing to Rutgers. Bridges is good all around, shooting 36.5% from three on an eFG% of 56.3. He’s blocking shots at a 3.7% rate, and drawing 4.1 fouls every 40 minutes, while only committing 2 himself.

Nick Ward is a competent big man that, while not as talented as Bridges, is still able to make life miserable for anyone trying to get anything done inside. Cassius Winston is your all around point guard, taking the baton from veteran Lourawls Nairn, Jr. Joshua Langford and Jaren Jackson are shooting 41.9 and 44.4 percent from three, respectively, rounding out a starting five that will give Penn State fits for most of the game.

If that weren’t enough, Michigan State has plenty of quality depth. Matt McQuaid, the aforementioned Narin, and J.T. Barrett “16-year player” award recipient Gavin Schilling are still around to provide little drop-off between starters, while Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goins can contribute in a pinch.

Michigan State’s one chink in their armor is their turnover rate. They’re turning the ball over at a 20.2% rate, while getting turnovers on 16.3% of opponents’ possessions. Compare that to Penn State’s 18.4 and 20.4 rates, respectively, and there’s your exploitable weakness.

What to watch for

Can Penn State force turnovers? - The last time the Nittany Lions faced a team prone to turn the ball over as much as Michigan State does, they forced five turnovers total. Giving Michigan State as few possessions as possible will aid in keeping Penn State in the game.

Three-point shooting - Penn State cooled considerably against Rutgers, shooting a paltry 27.8% from three. They’ll need to at least regress to the mean if they want to stand a chance in this game.

Free throws - At this point in the season, hoping for a great free-throw shooting night is unrealistic. However, if they can be on the good side of 60% the Lions might stand a chance. That and, of course, they’ll need to draw the fouls in the first place.

Ball sharing - The team, Tony Carr especially, has looked a lot better in the past two games, mainly because the ball has not been stagnating in the hands of Tony Carr while he tries to create things that aren’t there. The team will do itself a lot of favors if they can keep moving the ball around and preventing the Spartans from just ganging up on Carr.

Prediction

My heart says yes, but my brain says no. From the outside looking in, things seem to be coming together for another shocker. Michigan State is dealing with some off-the-field issues that have swept everyone in, Penn State is coming of that watershed moment on the road against a top 15 team, and followed it up with putting away a scrappy, but clearly inferior team. The team’s confidence has to be at an all-time high right now, and can realistically make the game competitive.

All that said, I can’t realistically predict the upset. Penn State still has a chance to beat some teams on its schedule down the stretch, but the faith required to believe they can win this game is a lot higher than what I have to give at this point. Michigan State 79, Penn State 70.


*Except for the part where Ohio State won the only game between the two teams by 16 points.