Penn State opens Big Ten play at home (must be a basketball thing only?) on Wednesday night against regular conference title contender Michigan State. The Nittany Lions are 6-2 and are rested, having been off their feet since a double overtime loss at Clemson last Tuesday.
The Nittany Lions would love to get a conference-opening win, especially with a trip to Champaign looming on Saturday. In fact, the Lions haven’t won a Big Ten opener since back in 2017-18 when the eventual NIT champ Nitts won on the road at Iowa.
Scouting the Opposition
The Spartans are reeling a bit at 5-4 (0-1 B1G) following a typical terrifying Tom Izzo early season schedule. Michigan State boasts wins against Kentucky and Villanova, along with a narrow loss on a boat to then No. 2 Gonzaga. However, in their last two outings, Michigan State was trounced in South Bend, losing 70-52 to Notre Dame, and then dropped a game at the Breslin Center to Northwestern.
While Michigan State does boast its trademark depth, injuries early this year have cut into that. Malik Hall, who averages 12 points and 5.3 rebounds, has been sidelined the past five games and won’t play against Penn State. Meanwhile, Jaden Akins (6 ppg, 3.2 rpg) returned to play 23 minutes against Northwestern after missing time. Couple those injuries with the brutal road schedule (games in San Diego, Portland, and Indianapolis already) and it’s safe to say that Sparty might be looking forward to a bit of a break.
While guard Tyson Walker leads the Spartans in scoring, averaging 14.4 points per game, watch out for Joey Hauser. Finally seeming comfortable following his transfer from Marquette a couple seasons ago, Hauser is averaging 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game and he’s shooting 44 percent from 3-point range. He’s a versatile player and he’s been MSU’s most consistent perimeter shooter. Meanwhile, a familiar refrain this year will be seeing how Penn State handles good post players - and Michigan State has one in 6’9 center Mady Sissoko, who averages 8 points and 5. 8 rebounds per game and starred late in MSU’s win against Kentucky.
What to Watch For
The atmosphere. Let’s call it like it is: this is a big game for Penn State in terms of momentum, tournament chances, and just overall vibe for the program. The Lions have been able to rest and prep for this one for more than a week. Head coach Micah Shrewsberry, via social media, has been imploring students and fans to show up and show out to make the BJC as raucous as it might be on a midweek night in December. Win this one and Penn State is likely 10-3, 1-1 (at worst) headed into 2023.
Winning plays. Penn State has had its chances in two close losses to Virginia Tech and Clemson. Yet in both of those, there were plays in the final four minutes (or seconds) that ultimately went against the blue and white. Last season, the Nittany Lions clawed their way a four-point home win against the Spartans. This figures to be a close one and a game that, come March, might make difference in Penn State postseason options.
Pace. One of college basketball’s great (and now mostly discounted) myths is that Michigan State is a grind-it-out team. The Spartans prefer to play in transition and so to, this year, does Penn State. With an advantage in the paint, it might seem that Michigan State would be tempted to slow the game down. What adjustments are made in those terms throughout the game?
I’m personally a big believer in “schedule wins” - something you see in basketball at the college and pro level all the time. I’m siding with more rested, more ready team at home here. Sparty is limping a little and this is one that will look great on the resume in March when Michigan State inevitably plays its best ball. Penn State 74, Michigan State 66.