The Nittany Lions return to the Palestra after a two-year hiatus. Seniors Mike Watkins and Lamar Stevens will have another chance to represent Penn State in their home city in the national spotlight, this time on a team ranked in the Top-25 in both the AP and Coaches poll. Pat Chambers and Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery are both Philly natives as well, and Fran’s connection to the Palestra dating back to his days playing for Penn is probably the only reason Chambers was able to convince a conference opponent to take him up on the offer since things didn’t go so well for Michigan State back in 2017.
In addition to the home-court atmosphere for the Nittany Lions, they have the advantage of already having two practices at the Palestra in the weeks leading up to the main event. Pat Chambers said it helped the team keep the energy up in practices over Christmas break, and that, along with the ease of traveling to Philly versus State College may cause them to make Palestra practices an annual event. That, combined with a win on Saturday will continue to build Penn State’s brand within the city.
Scouting the opposition
No one pegged this game as a battle between two-ranked teams when the season began, and while Penn State fans may view the No. 21 ranking as a pleasant surprise, Iowa fans should be somewhat shocked, all things considered. Tyler Cook left early to enter the NBA draft, Isaiah Moss transferred late in the recruiting cycle to Kansas, and now Jordan Bohannon is out for the year with a hip injury. All three were heading into their senior season, and the team looked like a true contender.
In their absence Luka Garza has stepped up in an unbelievable first-half performance that has him in the discussion for National Player of the Year. The junior forward has put it all together, and then some, showing an ability to take over the game and carry the team on his back. In the Hawkeyes loss at Michigan earlier in the year, Garza put up 44 points while shooting 17-29 from 2-pt range and 10-13 from the FT line in 36 minutes of action. He can’t do it all by himself, but he came pretty darn close in that one.
The loss of Bohannon will hurt, and having played just two games since his injury, we haven’t quite seen the ramifications against top-tier opponents. Freshman Joe Toussaint struggled mightily against Cincinnati in his first game taking on a larger role, turning the ball over 3 times in 4 minutes of action before Fran McCaffery turned to senior Bakari Evelyn to take over. Toussaint performed better against Kennesaw State (KP #344), which may help his confidence, but doesn’t mean too much.
Coaches son, Connor McCaffery will run the point for the Hawkeyes. As you’d expect he’s poised, knows the offense well, and isn’t going to make many mental errors. We’ll see if Jamari Wheeler can change that.
In support of Garza, sharp-shooters CJ Fredrick and Joe Wieskamp are what makes the offense for the Hawkeyes one of the best in the country. They’re more important than ever without Wieskamp, and Fredrick might be the freshman of the year in the Big Ten were it not for Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn.
Iowa will score, and they’ll look to play fast. With their limits at point guard, Penn State may be well-served to speed them up even faster with a three-quarter court press. The Nittany Lions ability to score in transition and play a deep bench bode well, but they can’t afford any extended scoring droughts against the 3rd most efficient offense in the country according to KenPom.
What to watch for
Turnovers - Pat Chambers announced yesterday in his press conference that Jamari Wheeler will be playing on Saturday, noting that Wheeler has practiced the past two days. This is huge for Penn State’s defense, and should cause concern for Iowa. The loss of Jordan Bohannon eliminates the most-reliable ball handler for the Hawkeyes, and in their first game without the steady hand of J-Bo the Hawkeyes turned the ball over 24 times in a narrow victory over Cincinnati. The Bearcats are a solid defensive team, but the Nittany Lions are better. Another 24 turnover outing would be difficult to overcome.
Watkins vs. Garza - From a viewer standpoint, this match-up is the highlight of the game. Garza is playing out of his mind, while a slew of talented centers in the league this year have somewhat overshadowed Mike Watkins’ impressive senior season thus far. Garza struggled against Watkins as a freshman, but last year in the BJC he scored 22 points en route to a 89-82 victory for the Hawkeyes. If Watkins can handle Garza one-on-one it will go a long way towards mitigating the next point.
3PT Shooting - CJ Fredrick and Joe Wiescamp have been outstanding from beyond-the-arc, to say the least. Fredrick (a freshman) is currently shooting 52% while Wiescamp is a more pedestrian 40% on the year. The double- and occasional triple-teams that Garza consistently draws have certainly helped the duo find open looks, and there’s reason to believe Penn State avoid getting sucked into the paint given the duo that they have defending inside. On the other end, Penn State will need their shooters to be in form. Myreon Jones (41%) is the only reliable option of the 3-pt shooters consistently taking shots. Penn State needs at least one of Myles Dread, Izaiah Brockington, or Curtis Jones Jr. to step up and improve upon their season averages.
It’s a new year and my optimism for this team has not faded. This edition of the Nittany Lions has the talent to defend Iowa in spurts, and more importantly the offensive talent to keep up with them throughout the game. More importantly, Penn State has the edge in depth, and home-court advantage. Good guys win. Penn State 85, Iowa 79