Two games will be played Tuesday night featuring 4 of the top 6 teams in the Big Ten Standings, and both will have implications on the running for the regular season conference championship. An hour after Rutgers and Maryland go head-to-head in College Park, Penn State and Michigan State will jockey for a leading position as the conference enters the second-half of regular season play. The Nittany Lions are currently 24th in the NET rankings and 16th on KenPom.
Penn State can pull within a half-game of Michigan State and Illinois with a win, and would claim the crown jewel of road wins in the hardest conference to win on the road this year. For the home team, a win gets them back on track, and means they continue to control their destiny in winning another regular season championship. The match-up features two of the top players in the country, with seniors Lamar Stevens and Cassius Winston each capable of taking over the game and turning it in their team’s favor. But it’s the depth for each team that will decide the ultimate outcome.
Scouting Michigan State
The Spartans blew a golden opportunity to stay out in front in the Big Ten standings with Saturday’s loss at Wisconsin. The good news? They return to the Breslin Center where they have yet to lose in Big Ten play this season.
Cassius Winston runs the show for the Spartans. The senior guard is averaging 18.2 points and 5.7 assists per game. The only other double-digit per game scorer on the Spartans is junior forward Xavier Tillman who is currently averaging a double-double (13.5 ppg, 10.1 rpg). In their loss to Wisconsin, Tillman struggled shooting 3-15 (1-4) from the field while scoring 7 points, but still finished with 14 rebounds and 5 assists.
Outside of Winston and Tillman, Michigan State has been reliant on its depth. Nine players average more than twelve minutes a game, and three additional players average more than five points per game. To pull off the win Michigan State will need their role players to continue to step up. That means a healthy Aaron Henry as he will likely draw the defensive assignment of Stevens. The sophomore forward is averaging 9.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game.
Rocket Watts has stepped up recently, scoring in double-figures in 4 of the last 6 games, consistently above his season average of 7.3 points per game. Gabe Brown played only three minutes due to illness in the loss to Wisconsin, and was replaced by Watts in the starting lineup. He’s a threat from deep, shooting 35%, and also has the size to challenge Seth Lundy, Izaiah Brockington and Myles Dread inside.
Foster Loyer (50%) and Kyle Ahrens (38%) are key rotation players capable of hitting from deep any time they’re on the court. Penn State will need to stay honest guarding the rotation players despite the attention Winston and Tillman deserve.
What To Watch
Star Power - Shutting down Cassius Winston is hardly an option, but containing him is a task that Jamari Wheeler is as suited for as anyone in the league. His ability to limit Winston’s efficacy and do so without fouling will be crucial. On the other end the Spartans don’t have a great match-up to isolate one-on-one with Lamar Stevens, but they do have depth. We should see plenty of Xavier Tillman vs Stevens in the paint which would open the door for Mike Watkins to step through with a strong performance. The way each team handles defending the stars, and works on offense to keep their star engaged will be a chess match to monitor all night.
Rebounding - As with any game against the Spartans this will be crucial. Penn State needs to keep the margin close if they want to pull the upset.
Bench Production - Michigan State is one of the deepest teams in the conference, and for once Penn State may match them. The benefit of Mike Watkins, Myles Dread, Curtis Jones and Izaiah Brockington scoring off the bench in a game like this can be huge if the starters are struggling. Watkins coming in against a worn-down Tillman or the Spartans’ reserve bigs should give him an edge. With the talent of the starters on both sides, this may not decide the game, but it should be a close match-up that shows how far Penn State has come compared to the vaunted Michigan State program.
Michigan State is an excellent all-around team with a deep rotation. Fortunately for Penn State, they seek to play a similar up-tempo game pace with offense driven by the quick transitioning from end-to-end. The Spartans rely on their dominance on the glass to create opportunities, while the Lions lean on their ability to produce turnovers. If there’s an edge for either team to gain, it lies in those two categories. If Michigan State dominates the boards and takes care of the ball, they should win. If Penn State can hang even on the boards, and win the turnover battle, they should win. The X-factor is the two stars, Stevens and Winston, and I think Penn State has a slight edge with the match-up for Stevens. A Winston buzzer-beater rims out. Penn State 77, Michigan State 75