We were out - and then Jalen Pickett pulled us right back in. The record-setting 41-point performance at the Bryce Jordan Center last week snapped a losing skid for Penn State and put the Lions back in the bubble conversation. On Thursday, Jerry Palm’s latest projected bracket had Penn State listed as one of the first four teams out.
Want to stay in that hunt for a precious at-large spot? Well, then Penn State will need to do what it hasn’t done since December: win on the road. The Lions will be at The Barn on Saturday night for a matchup with conference cellar dweller Minnesota. The game is eerily similar to Penn State’s trip to Nebraska a couple weeks ago - what proved to be the nadir in a four-game conference losing streak.
This marks the first in a stretch of five games to close the season, including four that would certainly be categorized as winnable (a trip to red-hot Northwestern would be considered the outlier). Penn State has left itself no margin for error heading into Saturday’s game.
Scouting The Opposition
Minnesota is playing out the string in what has been a dreadful season. The Golden Gophers have dropped eight straight, while also having a pair of games postponed (one against Illinois because of COVID within the Minnesota program and another because of the tragic shooting at Michigan State).
Since knocking off Ohio State in Columbus for its lone Big Ten win in mid-January, it’s been nothing but losses for the Gophers. However, Minnesota HAS been competitive a couple times at home - most notably leading Indiana for about 39 and a half minutes before letting the game slip away in part because of a missed block out on a free throw.
Making matters worse for Minnesota has been an injury to leading scorer Dawson Garcia, who averages 14.9 points and also a team-best 6.3 rebounds per game. Garcia has been out the past few games with an ankle injury and his status is in doubt against the Lions.
With him out of the lineup, an already thin Minnesota depth chart has been forced to play Jamison Battle and Ta’lon Cooper a ton of minutes. Both went the distance the last time the Gophers were on the floor, which as a 12-point home loss to Iowa. Battle averages 12.6 points and 3.6 rebounds per game, while Cooper leads the team with 124 assists and averages 10.5 points per game.
What To Watch For
Defense, Defense - Some who write for this blog have been extremely critical of Penn State’s defense the past few weeks...especially in the home loss to Wisconsin. Even in the win against Illinois, the Lions gave up 81 points. Well, Minnesota has the worst scoring offense in the conference, averaging just 60.9 points per game and, as mentioned, could be without one of its top scorers. It would be nice to see Penn State defend well - something it will have to do in order to finish this five-game stretch strong.
Through the Wire - Ok, not that Kanye. But Kanye Clary has emerged with back-to-back big games for Penn State. The freshman guard had 12 points and three rebounds in the win against Illinois, while he was a major bright spot, 17 points, in the loss at Maryland. Buy stock in Clary and watch those minutes increase. He could be a late-season spark that helps boost the play of those around him toward the end of the typically brutal Big Ten campaign.
Remember Penn State’s last NCAA trip? Probably not. But before going on an emphatic conference tournament run, the Lions snuck out a rather nondescript win at Minnesota to keep hope alive. Let’s feel hopeful.
Penn State 74, Minnesota 66.