This year has felt a bit different as a fan of the Nittany Lions with 3-straight wire-to-wire victories in decisive fashion to open the season. The team is even receiving votes in the latest USA Today Coaches Poll, and it’s the earliest that’s happened in a season for either poll in program history. Ghosts of hoops-teams past haunt the faithful fans however, and seeing Bucknell on the basketball schedule does conjure up some demons.
Penn State and Bucknell are meeting for the first time since the 2015-16 season when the Nittany Lions narrowly escaped with a 62-58 victory. The last three games between the two Pennsylvania schools have been decided by 10 points or fewer, with the Bison stealing one back in 2013-14. Both teams are currently shooting at or above 40% from 3-pt range
Scouting the opposition
The Bison come in with the 26th-best team shooting percentage from 3-pt range at 41.7%. Their recipe for an upset is no secret. All five starters shoot the 3, and shoot it well. Walter Ellis leads the team and has hit 10-of-16 from beyond the arc to start the season. Center John Meeks and his back-up Kahliel Spear are both above 50% from 3 so far, and will attempt to stretch the floor to mitigate the damage Mike Watkins can do in the paint.
Avi Toomer and Jimmy Sotos are the leaders in the back-court and join Meeks in the Bison’s trio of players averaging 10+ points per game. Toomer missed the first three games due to injury, but it didn’t seem to limit him as he scored 20 points in his return to play against Canisius.
Bucknell has some cause for concern following a last-second loss at Canisius last week. Unlike their first loss against Vermont where a 3-for-22 three-point shooting night doomed them in a closely contested game, the loss against Canisius came despite going 15-for-30 from three. The defensive performance wasn’t enough, as they allowed Canisius to shoot 64% from the field en route to a second-half comeback. If the defense is lacking again against Penn State it won’t matter how many threes they make.
If the visitors can tempt the Nittany Lions into making the game a 3-point shooting contest, they have a shot. Last year with multiple freshman leading the perimeter attack I would’ve been more concerned, but I think the experience of this team will help them stay disciplined and work to create good shots regardless of whether or not Bucknell’s are dropping.
What to watch for
Attendance - The win over Georgetown, at Georgetown, felt like it had more Penn State fans in attendance than either of the first two games at home. Here’s hoping that win generated enough buzz on campus to create a little bit of atmosphere in the BJC (like an upgrade from playing on the moon to playing on Mars). Note: Penn State freshmen from all campuses will be offered free admission tonight.
Ball security - The differences in play style between Georgetown and Bucknell will make this hard to judge from the box score. There will be fewer turnovers in this game simply because of way it’s played. What I’m looking for here are a reduction in the number of passes out-of-bounds due to misreading teammates or not knowing the play call.
Penn State fans will be pinching themselves after a fourth-straight win that was never really in doubt. Are we allowed to watch basketball without pain? Maybe. Bucknell’s shooting isn’t enough with a stout defense to back it up for the Bison to pull-off the upset. And Penn State has a versatile lineup that can pull this off even if a few key performers are having off nights. Penn State 80, Bucknell 61.