The nation’s longest active winning streak came to an end in typical Penn State fashion last week, with a 2-point overtime performance coming up short on the road versus DePaul. The 72-70 loss was the first of the season for the Nittany Lions, and it highlighted a few of the team’s shortcomings. First and foremost, without Mike Watkins teams are having their way with Penn State inside, particularly on the glass. The Blue Demons grabbed 47 rebounds compared to 36 for the Nittany Lions.
Rasir Bolton followed up an outstanding performance against Jacksonville State with an awful night shooting the ball, going 0-10 from the field. With Mike Watkins out, and a lack of offensive firepower outside of Lamar Stevens and Josh Reaves, Bolton and fellow freshman Myles Dread will need to contribute on a nightly basis. Rasir can’t be relied on for 20-points every night, but he does need to average around double-digits for the team to succeed.
Following their loss in Chicago, the team traveled to Mexico for the Cancun Challenge. Wright State awaits, and they’ll be no pushover, coming off a 17-point victory over the same UNF team that Penn State beat by 15-points to open the season.
Scouting the Opposition
Head coach Scott Nagy and the Wright State Raiders are coming off their most successful season in over a decade, returning the core of a team that went 25-10 on their way to a Horizon League championship and a NCAA tournament appearance. The media and coaches have high expectations again this year for the Raiders, making them the preseason favorites to win the Horizon League in 2018-19.
Despite losing sophomore Jaylon Hall to injury, Wright State has four players averaging double-digits scoring. They have a balanced attack led by stretch-big Billy Wampler, and preseason 1st team all-conference wing Loudon Love. Guards Cole Gentry, Skyelar Potter and Mark Hughes round out the starting lineup - all of whom are shooting greater than 40% from 3-point range so far.
The Raiders pride themselves in their rebounding average +5 rebounds per game compared to their opponents through four games. This includes a blowout loss to Murray State in which they were out-rebounded 41-25 (shooting 16.7% from three didn’t help). Penn State will have a difficult time replicating Murray State’s dominance, but if they can keep the battle of the boards close, I like their chances to win the game.
What To Watch For
Rebound - I’ll focus on the literal rebounding for this point. On the season Penn State is averaging -4 rebounds per game compared to their opponents, while Wright State averages +5. Barring the return of Mike Watkins, I don’t see those averages changing much, but Chambers and the team must find a way to keep the margin from getting out of hand. Harrar must find a way to stay out of foul trouble, and the guards will need to do their part in crashing the boards as well. Penn State has an edge defensively, but that edge will be squandered if they get dominated on the boards.
Wheeler v. Gentry - Cole Gentry is the primary ball handler for Scott Nagy’s offense, and with Jaylon Hall injured, there’s not much depth behind him. Jamari Wheeler’s lack of offense has been on display early in the season, suggesting that Bolton may take over the starting PG role at some point before the New Year. Tonight’s game against the Raiders would be the wrong time to make the switch. Wheeler’s defensive prowess should be able to disrupt the flow of the game for Wright State, as he can force the ball out of Gentry’s hands and into the hands of someone less reliable.
Lamar Stevens - He has been a constant force so far this season, a mismatch for anyone the opposing coaching staff throws his way. Wright State has both Wampler and Love to try to contain Stevens; and they will both keep him busy on the defensive end as well. Still, Lamar will be the most talented player on the court tonight, and he needs to continue to play like it. In what I expect to be a close game, look for Lamar to take over down the stretch. If Penn State has the final possession and is in need of a score, Stevens will be the one with the ball in his hands.
Predicting a loss here seems reasonable despite the large gap in talent, and I can see it being a trendy “upset” pick this week in college hoops. The loss to DePaul restored the all-too-familiar doubt and #PennStatePessimism among the fanbase. Rebounding in this game will be crucial, and I expect Chambers to stress that to his team after they struggled on the boards in their loss. It’s apparent that Penn State will need at least two players besides Lamar and Josh to step up and score - can the freshman Dread and Bolton deliver?
This game will be tough to watch at times, as Wright State will be able to keep things close due to their rebounding and balance on offense. Jamari and Josh will do enough on defense to make the Raiders uncomfortable and give the Nittany Lions some easy points in transition. Lamar takes over down the stretch to lead Penn State to victory, albeit a close one. Penn State 71, Wright State 68