The Nittany Lions embark on the first of two potential third meetings against a Big Ten conference opponent, this time against the Northwestern Wildcats. The last time these two teams met, Northwestern came away with a nine-point victory fueled in no small part by a 10-minute span without a single field goal on the Nittany Lions’ end.
Just like shooting 71% from three against Ohio State a week later, it will be incredibly difficult to replicate that type of performance. Even if Mike Watkins is unavailable for this game, which is the operating assumption at the time of writing, Penn State should be able to more freely score the basket now that the figurative switch has flipped for Tony Carr. Having Josh Reaves back will also be a huge boon, as Northwestern likes to shoot the ball from outside at a good clip (39.3% of their field goal attempts are from three, compared to Penn State’s 32%).
Has anything changed?
Not really. Bryant McIntosh* still shoulders the bulk of the scoring, although he’s not that efficient. Scottie Lindsey is still hot and cold, with little to no in-between, and Vic Law, their most reliable three-point shooter, will not be available for this game. If there is a silver lining, is that with the injuries they’ve sustained lately, Gavin Skelly has been able to see extended time, and has not disappointed.
The one player that may cause problems for the Nittany Lions is Derek Pardon, who, if Watkins is unavailable, will find it increasingly easy to do whatever he wants in the paint. Unlike Isaac Copeland or Moritz Wagner, Pardon is not a threat to shoot from outside, so it will be of utmost importance for Penn State to make sure everything comes at a price for the center.
How will Penn State win?
Force the ball outside - If Watkins is out, the Nittany Lions have to do everything in their power to force the Wildcats to shoot from afar. If Northwestern has to settle for contested outside shots, they could quickly dig themselves into an insurmountable hole.
Turnovers - Northwestern is 133rd in the nation with a turnover rate of 17.9, while the Penn State sits at 74th in the country with a healthy 20.3 rate of their own on defense. With Reaves back, the main focus should be to turn defense into offense.
Conserve energy - Not specifically a key to the game, but it will be interesting to watch how Pat Chambers manages his roster in this game. Does he let the starters play for most of the game, or does he run his bench more often in an attempt to keep legs fresh?
How will it go?
As I said a few days ago, Northwestern has to be the most disappointing team this season. A team that returned four starters from a NCAA Tournament outing a season ago, they finished the season three games under .500. Don’t be surprised to see a dejected team that is ready for the season to be over. Penn State 64, Northwestern 54.
*Although he played on Sunday, and said he would play on Thursday, McIntosh might also not be available for this game. If both Law and McIntosh are out, we may not need Watkins at all.