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NIT Final Four Preview: Penn State vs Mississippi State

Penn State is back at Madison Square Garden

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Purdue vs Penn State Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The last time Penn State was at Madison Square Garden, the Nittany Lions won two games in the Big Ten Tournament. They’ll need to win two games again if they want to return home as NIT champions. After playing a somewhat uninspired game against the Temple Owls, going on the road to beat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in South Bend, on St. Patrick’s Day, and withstanding an assault from one of the best offensive teams in the country in the Marquette Golden Eagles, the Lions will head back to MSG to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs for a chance at an NIT championship.

Mississippi State has been on somewhat of a similar run, having faced a pesky Nebraska team at home in the first round, then going on the road to face the two high seeds in its bracket. They needed a comeback to rid themselves of Baylor, but against Louisville, the game was never in doubt. Barring defections, they’ll return a good portion of their team next season, so the dream is to win the NIT this season and make the NCAA Tournament next season.

As a fellow four seed, the Bulldogs’ profile is a lot more similar to Penn State’s than those of Notre Dame and Marquette. Mississippi State isn’t as good defensively, overall, as Penn State, but still in the top 50. They’re not as good offensively, overall, as Penn State, but still in the top 100. They are substantially better at certain specific statistics on defense, however, while also being substantially worse in certain offensive statistics. In essence, everything together should equate to a fairly even game, one decided by the final one or two possessions.

Scouting the Opposition

Mississippi State doesn’t have any seniors who contribute significantly to the team. They’re led by junior Quinndary Weatherspoon, the player with the highest usage on the team. Weatherspoon won’t be lighting up the scoreboard himself, but he fills the Josh Reaves role on the team, evenly distributing the ball, disrupting the opponent on defense, and getting shots inside. The role of sharp shooter is assigned to Aric Holman, another junior, who is shooting 42.7% from three in the season. Holman is the only Bulldog shooting above 40% from three, the next closest is Xavian Stapleton at 36%.

Like Penn State, defense is Mississippi State’s calling card, and like Penn State. Like Penn State, they have two turnover specialist in Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters, whose 2.6 and 3.2 steal rates are 235th and 97th, respectively. They don’t come close to Josh Reaves’ 11th ranked steal rate of 4.3, or even Jamari Wheeler’s 5.3* rate, but they’re good enough to cause some havoc to a team that can occasionally cough the ball up more than one would like. Holman and Abdul Ado also have an 8.8 and 7.6 block rate respectively, which, without Mike Watkins to counteract on Penn State’s end, could make a big difference down the stretch.

What to Watch For

Offensive Efficiency - The Bulldogs may have scored 79 against Louisville last week, but they’re rarely going to beat teams with an offensive assault. If Penn State can make brown MSU play from behind early, they should have an easy time on Tuesday night.

Height Inside - Mississippi State has three players 6’10” and taller, and uses all of them with regularity. This height disparity proved to be a disadvantage against Purdue, especially without Watkins. Luckily for the Nittany Lions, the Bulldogs don’t shoot at anywhere near the rate Purdue does.

Madison Square Garner - Shep has done pretty well in just about every game he’s played at MSG. Will he continue his hot streak in this week?


This is a matchup of two of the hottest teams in this tournament. It’s very likely that the winner of this game will go on to win the NIT. Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, that team will be Mississippi State. Mississippi State 103, Penn State 81.

*Ineligible for ranking due to limited number of possessions.