Penn State is 2-0 thanks in large part to two outstanding shooting performances last week at the Bryce Jordan Center. In two easy wins against Winthrop and Loyola (Md.), the Nittany Lions scored better than 90 points in each game and are shooting 50 percent (34-of-68) on the year from 3-point range.
Things get more challenging starting on Monday night with the Gavitt Games, pitting Penn State against a Big East team. Now, in modern day college basketball, this isn’t your typical Big East opponent as Butler, located in Indianapolis, is hardly a team associated with Madison Square Garden, etc. But the Bulldogs have been one of college basketball’s most consistent programs over the past 20 years, highlighted by back-to-back national runner-up finishes with Brad Stevens as their coach.
However, there has been change for the Kenpom No. 120 program, starting at the top. LaVall Jordan was fired last spring, ending his five-year run at Butler that never saw the Bulldogs finish higher than fifth in the league.
Scouting the opposition
Butler is coming off uncharacteristic back-to-back losing seasons, a first for the Bulldogs since back in 1988-89 and 1989-90. Well, that meant a lot of change. The biggest headline was the hiring of Thad Matta, who coached Butler to a 24-8 mark about 20 years ago before moving on to Xavier and then Ohio State. The Bulldogs also offer two impact transfer starters: center Manny Bates, previously a top-100 recruit at North Carolina State, and point guard Eric Hunter Jr., who you’ll remember well from Purdue. Both played outstanding in Butler’s lone game, an 89-53 win against New Orleans last Monday. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs also have back last year’s leading scorer Chuck Harris, a tough-minded guard who was a high school teammates of Myles Dread at Gonzaga.
What to watch for
First off, it’s a chance for many to actually watch the Nittany Lions - the game is televised on FS1 starting at 8:30 p.m. Last week’s games were both streaming only, so settle in and watch this bus burn, baby.
How about this shooting? Can it hold up? Probably not to a 50 percent clip from 3-point range, but second-year coach Micah Shrewsberry has made it clear that he wants the 3-ball to be a big part of his offense. Butler will have the length and athleticism to challenge Nittany Lion shooters. Plus, with a week to prepare and two games of film to study, the Bulldogs should have a better defensive gameplan compared to two “buy-win” opponents.
Finally, how about a rotation? This game figures to be closer and it will be interesting to see how much, if at all, Shrews reigns in the rotation. As mentioned in our preseason prediction thread, Penn State has a great mix of returnees, freshmen, and transfers. With the Big Ten opener looming in a couple weeks, the Lions will need to continue tinkering with lineups and rotations to figure out the best mix when the games get bigger.
Penn State will be forced to deal with Bates - a nice prep for Big Ten play against quality bigs like Hunter Dickinson and Trayce Jackson-Davis. Butler will be physical on defense and will challenge Penn State’s shooters more, forcing them to become drivers. However, I still think being at home and being a deeper team helps the Lions to a nice name recognition win. Penn State 72, Butler 66.