The Penn State Nittany Lions find themselves in a precarious position. By all available metrics, the Lions are one a historic run of difficulty in their schedule. As per Kenpom, their SOS is five points higher than the hardest schedule ever recorded in that system. Think about that. The toughest schedule, ever, in the history of Kenpom, prior to this season, is five whole points lower than the difficulty the Nittany Lions are seeing this year.
Yet, Penn State is technically out of consideration for the NCAA tournament because they have a 7-8 overall record. Meanwhile, there are several teams, slated to be in the tournament as of today in the latest bracketologies, who haven’t played as many top 50 opponents as Penn State has beaten.
As to not derail the point of this article, let’s just say this: there’s a strong sense of “this is how we’ve always done it and even though it’s foolish to not reconsider we’re going to go ahead and do it this way anyway” energy going on at the moment, so the Nittany Lions will most likely need to earn their bid the traditional way. Which, of course, brings us right to this game.
Michigan State is the same uber talented team that was once ranked fourth in the nation this season. They still have a bevy of top-100 players on the roster, and can, at any given point, perform like the team we expected them to at the beginning of the season. They’re still coached by Tom Izzo, one of the best coaches in the country, and inarguably the best coach in the Big Ten. The month is still February, and Tom Izzo’s teams turn it on when the calendar turns to February.
Need Evidence? The listless Spartan team that lost by 30 to Rutgers (yes, the Rutgers team Penn State beat about a week prior) and couldn’t do anything right against Ohio State (yes, the Ohio State team that was lucky to survive against this Nittany Lion squad) suddenly decided that they could hang with Iowa (yes, the Iowa team that scores at will on teams) and beat a Nebraska team that, well, is Nebraska. The two former performances happened in January, the latter two happened in February.
Penn State, by this writer’s calculations, will play Michigan State in the month of February. That means that, as bad as Michigan State has looked like in recent weeks, the Nittany Lions cannot take this team lightly. Not only that, the Nittany Lions aren’t prone to winning at the Breslin Center in its history in the Big Ten. The Lions have exactly two wins at Michigan State, the one we all know and love from last season. The other one, well, that was before most of the roster on either was in high school. In fact, it was Talor Battle’s 2009 Nittany Lions who managed to knock off the Spartans on the road, so in that sense, there’s a lot of experience on the team and the coaching staff on accomplishing that feat.
This game, as a result, has big implications. Penn State will try, for the first time in school history, to beat Michigan State on the road two years in a row. It will also try, for the first time in school history, to become eligible for the NCAA tournament two years in a row. While beating the Spartans is not indispensable to Penn State’s chance at making the tournament, winning this game makes the rest of the schedule much more manageable, and likely losses against the teams at the top of the standings are not the death blow they would otherwise become if the Lions can’t pull it out on Tuesday.
Scouting the Opposition
Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman left quite the void on the Michigan State roster. That void was to be filled by Rocket Watts, Aaron Henry, and Marquette Transfer Joey Hauser, along with the return of Joshua Langford from injury.
As of today, only Langford has been as good as advertised, while the other three have had what most would call an up and down season. Both Henry and Watts have shown flashes of brilliance, like the game against Iowa showed, while also showing signs of futility, like the most recent game against Nebraska showed. Hauser has been a little more consistent, but even he isn’t immune from a clunker of a game.
What to Watch For
Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. The Spartans are averaging 15.25 turnovers a game since coming back from their covid pause. If the Nittany Lions can take advantage of such turnovers and turn them into points on the other end, it’ll go a long way in keeping Michigan State on their heels throughout the game.
Unlike last season, Michigan State is not shooting that well from three this season, they’ll look to establish the inside game early. The Nittany Lions need to force the Spartans into ill-advised outside shots, while themselves establishing a presence inside early.
Last, but not least, the Spartans are one of the few teams who foul at a similar rate as Penn State. Can they get to the line and take care of business when there?
I would love to say the Nittany Lions come in and dominate from start to finish, but I, unfortunately, think the Spartans are going to put it all together, and it’ll start in this game. Michigan State 77, Penn State 73.