Has there ever been a better time to be a Penn State basketball fan? The Lions are 15-5 (5-4 B1G), No. 23 in the NET Rankings and have garnered national attention for their play thus far. It’s extremely unlikely at this point that the team will miss the NCAA Tournament.
Let that swirl around in your mouth for a while and once the taste takes hold, swallow it and move forward. There will be at least a dozen conference games to enjoy before the NCAA Tournament begins, it should be very entertaining for fans. There has been a focus, at times unreasonable, for Pat Chambers to get the team to the NCAA Tournament while he has been building the program.
This is a tournament season, so anyone that was holding out their affection for the team until that time should let loose for the next couple of months. If the NCAA Tournament is all that matters, the only thing that moves the needle, then this season is a needle-mover, this season matters.
This is what it looks like when Penn State basketball is relevant. This is how it feels. It’s not always easy, there will likely be at least a half-dozen losses more to witness even if the Lions make a deep run in the tournament. While each setback will be devastating, none by itself will end the season until it happens during March Madness, on a neutral court, during the NCAA Tournament.
Enjoy it. Soak it in. Rub it on the side of your face for comfort when times get tough. It’s okay to feel good about Penn State basketball. It’s safe to expect good things to happen. The team hasn’t made it to the top of the mountain but it has climbed into tournament position.
That being said, don’t sleep on the Cornhuskers. The team has struggled but has beaten Iowa and Purdue at home. They lost by 3 to Rutgers, on the road, just one week ago. There is enough talent on the team to successfully defend their home court.
Nebraska is ranked 308th out of 353 teams, giving up 75.4 points per game. A lot of the problem is the lack of a solid inside presence. There are only two traditional big men on the team and they are a pair of freshmen, 6-foot-8 Kevin Cross and 6-foot-9 Yvan Ouedraogo. Outside of those two, there are two players with height that play as though they were guards, Matej Kavas (6-foot-8) from Slovenia and Thorir Thorbjarnarson (6-foot-6) from Iceland.
Thorbjarnarson has one of the sweetest lefty strokes from 3-point range in the college game. He’s shooting 45% and attempting 3.7 per game. But his and Kavas’ tendency to play outside leaves very little height and girth down low, which forces coach Fred Hoiberg to try to make things work with two first-year players.
Cam Mack is a very solid Big Ten point guard and he leads the team with 13.6 points per game and 6.8 assists. Haanif Cheatham contributes 12.3 per game and Dachon Burke 11.4. Ten players will see the court for Nebraska but the starting guards will lead the way.
What To Watch
Low-post play- With Mike Watkins and Lamar Stevens, Penn State has two big men that will be hard to handle for the Cornhuskers. If the Lions can force the issue early, feeding them and John Harrar, it could create foul trouble and leave Nebraska without anyone to defend the rim. That would make it easier for Brockington and the Joneses to drive the lane and would open up the 3-point shooters for kick-out passes.
Role Shifting- Myles Dread made a couple of deep balls and shot 3 for 6 from the field against Indiana. Let’s hope that means that he is coming out of his shooting slump. With CuJo playing well and getting time on the court earlier in the game, we have seen a slightly different substitution pattern from Pat Chambers. Izaiah Brockington has got nearly ten minutes fewer per game for the past two games, something that is likely not permanent. It will be interesting to see if his productivity, and energy, increases as he tries to earn more time on the court.
John Harrar- Don’t let the numbers fool you, John Harrar is having a great season. He has averaged over 20 minutes per game for the past five contests after playing less than 15 before being inserted into the starting lineup. You will not find signs of his contribution in traditional places, such as points, rebounds or blocks. If you watch him on the court, you will see what he brings to the table. His ball handling allows the rest of the offense to flow better when he touches it at the top of the key. He is an offensive rebound machine and he makes the right play, again and again. Since he seldom tries to block shots, instead makes the shooter attempt a low-percentage shot over the top of him, his style is not flashy. It works and his team knows what to expect from him; his consistency allows everyone else to play off his wall of arms.
Halftime Show- The Amazing Sladek will be performing at halftime, so there’s a good chance that we will get to see some old guy (55) climbing up on a bunch of chairs. He’s pretty cool, but amazing? I guess we’ll have to see on Saturday night.
It’s hard to guess what will unfold in a season with so many great games during conference play. Nebraska certainly has enough talent to win the game and with the support of 15,000 fans and also the Amazing Sladek on their side, it will be a tough environment for Penn State. If the Lions can bring their typical intensity on defense, and exhaust the Cornhuskers with their depth, it should be enough for the 4th consecutive Big Ten win for Pat Chambers’ team.
Penn State 78, Nebraska 64