The last time these two teams played, Rutgers was the feel-good story of a scrappy team that found ways to win* against all sorts of teams, having beaten Seton Hall and Wisconsin at the time. In came Penn State, a team moving up in the rankings after a tremendous non-conference season. The Scarlet Knights played their kind of game and executed perfectly, being able to withstand a horrendous shooting first half by forcing the Nittany Lions to take their own ill-advised shots that would lead to a mere five-point halftime lead.
Rutgers’ style of play continued to work in their favor, as Penn State temporarily reverted to old habits by playing isolation basketball and shouldering the scoring load on one person at a time, instead of doing what had been so effective before, and continues to be effective to this day, which is moving the ball and getting multiple players involved in every possession. This allowed Rutgers to sit inside, wait for the miss, and grab the rebound. This is also how Rutgers was able to build their lead in the second half, as each Scarlet Knight possession involved a minimum of two shots —the requisite miss, followed by the offensive rebound and putback.
The Penn State effort proved short, and this game began a three-game losing skid for the team in blue and white, one that would lead many to believe this season was no different than other seasons, that Penn State had already locked themselves out of a potential NCAA tournament bid, that Chambers could not coach his way out of a freeway in a Maserati, you get the point. Fast forward to today, and the No. 16 Nittany Lions are in second place in the conference, needing two Maryland losses to tie for first place. Conversations are no longer about whether the Lions will reach the tournament, but what seed they’ll get.
The Scarlet Knights, on the other hand, are still looking for their second road win of the season, their only such win coming against a Nebraska team currently in 13th place in the conference, facing one of their worst seasons in 20 years.
Scouting the opposition
It would be easy to maintain the “Rutgers can’t shoot” stereotype going, as the Scarlet Knights find themselves in the same kind of trajectory the Nittany Lions found themselves in previous seasons. Rutgers’ bread and butter is defense and rebounding, and offense, while welcome, is secondary. That said, their offense this season is quite decent, currently ranked 74th in Kenpom. For comparison’s sake, last season’s offense was ranked 152nd, the previous season’s 270th. That is a monumental jump for a team that hasn’t really lost a step on defense, still ranked in the top 15 in that category. In fact, their defense this season is better than it was last season, and when paired with their much improved offense, you get a team that rarely loses at home, even if they struggle to win on the road.
Their offensive resurgency is powered by Ron Harper Jr. and Akwasi Yeboah shooting above 30 percent from three, while Geo Baker is not that far behind at 28.4 percent. Montez Mathis is theoretically above 30 percent as well, but his volume is a little over half of the other three. While this seems like backhanded compliment, last season’s Rutgers team had exactly one player shooting above 30% from three last season on volume, and that was Baker himself. This year they have four, and some of those shots come in clutch moments. Most recently, Baker’s shooting has saved the Knights from embarrassing home losses against Northwestern and Nebraska, but the comebacks have been powered by Harper and Yeboah’s shooting as well.
It may be overly simplistic to say, but that’s it. That’s the difference this season. The Scarlet Knights do exactly the same thing they did last year, and now they can shoot the ball better than they did last season. That gets you from fighting tooth and nail for wins and facing insurmountable 10-point deficits in losses to being a nightmare for teams at home, and giving them a scare on the road. Shoot even a little better next season and the road wins could start to follow.
What to watch for
Protect home court - Rutgers’ struggles on the road have been well documented here and everywhere, but the one place they’ve found success over the years is the comfortable confines of the Bryce Jordan Center. Their first road win as a Big Ten member, after two and a half years of trying, came against Penn State. The Nittany Lions need to forget about anything else and focus on beating Rutgers, both to avoid a season sweep and to protect home court.
Pace - The Scarlet Knights are 232nd in adjusted tempo, and they like it like that. If they can limit the opponents possessions, their strategy of grabbing every rebound available to them pays off fairly well. The Nittany Lions have fared the worst when they let the opposing team dictate the pace, so now they need to return the favor and play to their 45th adjusted tempo ranking and run Rutgers out of the building.
Rivalry feel - The addition of Rutgers and Maryland to the Big Ten did not move the needle on the football side, but it has worked wonders for the basketball team. Maryland is a basketball school, and Rutgers has increasingly become a better team over the years in Big Ten play. Penn State plays with energy and purpose against these two teams, where players from all three teams have usually been recruited by each coaching staff. Not only that, a number of these players know each other from playing in high school and the AAU circuit. This adds a little bit of juice to the games and makes a win that much more meaningful.
Penn State let the game slip away back in January, and I expect the Nittany Lions will be hungry to rectify that wrong. Also the game is not on FS1, where the Nittany Lions are contractually obligated to lose. Penn State 68, Rutgers 64.
*Home games only