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Penn State at Nebraska Preview: Epic Bubble Battle Looms In Lincoln

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Tomorrow’s showdown at Nebraska marks a critical game for the Nittany Lions’ at-large NCAA Tournament hopes.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

After back-to-back missed opportunities against ranked Purdue and Michigan teams this week, Penn State will get one last shot at a marquee win in the regular season when they hit the road to face Nebraska for the second time this season. The Nittany Lions won the previous meeting at home last month, in a 76-74 overtime thriller that saw Tony Carr nail the game-winning shot with four seconds left. At 9-8 in the Big Ten, a win for PSU in their regular season finale would see them finish above .500 in conference play for the first time since the 2008-09 season (PSU also went 10-8 in Big Ten play that season) and more importantly, give them a season sweep of yet another quality opponent.

The Cornhuskers have won seven of their previous eight contests, with the lone blemish being a road loss at bottom-feeder Illinois and currently sit in fifth place in the Big Ten standings. A win over PSU tomorrow night however, would vault them into fourth place ahead of Michigan (Nebraska owns the head-to-head tiebreaker against Michigan) and get them a much-coveted double bye in the Big Ten Tournament, which tips off this coming Wednesday.

Currently, PSU sits in seventh place in the conference, but a win for the Lions would secure sixth place, which would be critical since it would mean they would get the winner between the No. 14 and 11 seeds that played the previous day, and would thus have fresher legs going into their first contest. This would not be the case if PSU were to finish as the No. 7 seed, as they would face the No. 10 seed in their first game, who would also be playing on fresh legs. While fresh legs don’t automatically mean victory, you would rather PSU’s opponent be the ones having to make a less than 24-hour turnaround to play again.

Scouting The Opposition

Glynn Watson and Isaac Copeland both put up 21 points on Penn State in the prior meeting, and will continue to be players to keep an eye on for Nebraska. Watson however, has failed to eclipse double digits in scoring in the Huskers’ last three games, so it remains to be seen whether he can duplicate his performance from the previous meeting. Copeland, who averages over six rebounds per contest, could potentially have a big night on the boards with Mike Watkins unavailable for PSU. Additionally, James Palmer is another guy to keep an eye on, leading the team in scoring (17.6 points per game) and also giving the Huskers another reliable rebounder at 4.5 rebounds per game. As a team, the Huskers prefer a slower, more plodding style where they defend the living hell out of you as evidenced by their ranking 306th in Kempom in Average Possession Length and 21st in effective FG% defense. Penn State will seek to try and speed up the game, as they were successfully able to at times during the previous meeting, which allowed them to build a 16-point cushion that they eventually squandered but recovered to win in overtime.

What To Watch For

Life Without Watkins - This could prove to be very problematic for PSU, as in their back-to-back losses, they saw Watkins go down with a serious leg injury just a few minutes into the Michigan game and play only nine minutes total against Purdue because of foul trouble. While Julian Moore, Satchel Pierce, and John Harrar were able to collectively step up at times, it was painfully obvious how much Watkins meant to PSU’s production in the post. It should be noted however, that PSU did out-rebound Purdue despite barely having Watkins available, so don’t assume that all is lost when it comes to owning the advantage on the glass. Scoring-wise however, somebody is going to have to step it up.

SH3P & Friends - This goes without saying, but if PSU wants to steal this win on the road, they are going to have to shoot lights-out from behind the 3-point line. This is where Shep Garner, Tony Carr, and anyone else who feels like joining the perimeter shooting party needs to step up.

Who Wants It More? - Both teams are squarely on the bubble, and probably right next to each other on said bubble, since the latest Bracketology from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has PSU as the last team in its “First Four Out” and Nebraska as the first team in its “Next Four Out.” No doubt, both teams will come into this game desperately seeking another marquee win to add to their respective resumes, but if both teams are sucking wind late in a tight game, it may come down to who is willing to step up and play with a greater sense of urgency.

Prediction

While I wouldn’t label this a bubble-elimination game, since the loser of the this game could still clinch an at-large bid with a run to the Big Ten Tournament finals, this certainly has all the makings of one. At the very least, PSU knows it will be without Watkins going into this game, and it won’t be a surprise. They could very well suffer the consequences of not having Watkins in a painfully obvious way, or they could find a way to pull a win out of their behinds and keep their at-large hopes very much alive. Despite my own personal doubts, I have a strange feeling they will somehow do the latter, Penn State 69 Nebraska 68