When teams lose some of their best players for parts of the season, they tend to perform below expectations. This cannot be more true for the two teams facing off in this NIT second-round matchup. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish had NCAA Tournament aspirations, having at one time been ranked as high as No. 5 in the nation, before it saw its season spiral out of control after Bonzie Colson went out with an injury that kept him off the field for two months. The Irish lost seven straight games in ACC play, and would end up with a losing conference record at 8-10. Colson came back just in time to prevent Notre Dame from missing the postseason altogether, but not with enough time to make up for all the losses they’d racked up to that point. All that said, the Irish did have their black marks before the injury bug derailed their season, losing to Ball State, who ended the season ranked 172nd in Kenpom, and Indiana, who infamously got blown out, twice, by Indiana State and Fort Wayne, respectively.
In essence, Penn State’s season is fairly similar to Notre Dame’s insofar as a team with high expectations coming into the season saw some of the luster wear off as they lost to lower-rated teams early in Wisconsin and Rider, then saw its season nearly slip out of grasp as they lost Josh Reaves for four games (three of which Penn State lost), then, after coming back from the dead to give themselves a shot at the big tournament, lost Mike Watkins to leave all doubt behind.
The difference between the two teams is that the Nittany Lions are still playing without Watkins, while the Irish are at full strength. Nazeer Bostick’s recently reported suspension will only make matters worse, as the guard was a big part in the Nittany Lions’ win against Temple.
Conventional wisdom would dictate a loss for this team, as the combination of road game plus roster deficiencies will be hard to overcome. Then again, these Nittany Lions have defied logic before, so let’s see if they can do it again.
Scouting the Opposition
We already talked a bit about Colson, arguably Notre Dame’s best player on roster. The senior is a force who, after coming back from injury, looked like he hadn’t missed any time at all. His block and steal rates are both top 100 in the nation, at 91st and 77th, respectively. Stopping him altogether may be out of the question, but slowing him down will be paramount in any success the Nittany Lions would have in this game.
That leaves you with Martinas Geben and T.J. Gibbs, who combined for 35 of Notre Dame’s 84 points against Hampton on Tuesday (Colson had 14). Gibbs’s 40.4% rate from three is highest on the team, followed by Matt Farrell 38.1%. If Penn State is to take the same strategy they took against Temple and deny the three point shot against the Irish, Julian Moore and John Harrar will have to play one of their best games of the season to then stop Geben from going off inside. Luckily for the Nittany Lions, Geben is the only player taller than 6’6” who sees significant time on the floor. It only takes one though...
Notre Dame does their damage on offense, as evidenced by their 30th-ranked offensive efficiency. Their defensive efficiency is only ranked 61st, however. They’re not great at forcing turnovers, as their 16.4 turnover rate is ranked 289th in the nation. This game will likely come down to each team’s strength, as Penn State’s 19th-ranked defensive efficiency should pose a threat to the Irish, while the Nittany Lions’ offense (57th in offensive efficiency) good enough to score some points, but not great, gets pitted against Notre Dame’s equally good, but not great, defense.
What to Watch For
Backdoor cuts - Temple made Penn State’s life miserable with the backdoor cuts and pick ‘n’ rolls, and the Irish are likely to try it as well.
Depleted roster - Without Bostick and Watkins, Penn State’s rotation is now down to seven players. Deividas Zemgulis and Trent Buttrick will have to pick up the slack in this game, and they’ll have to play the games of their careers if Penn State wants to stay in it.
Tony Carr - He can’t go 1-12 in this game if we’re going to have a chance.
Penn State has too much stacked against them in this game. No Mike Watkins, no Nazeer Bostick, road game, a Notre Dame team playing really well with a full roster, it’s just too much to overcome. If the Lions win this game, it should be considered a minor miracle. Notre Dame 89, Penn State 67.