Penn State didn’t come away from this week’s Legends Classic with the championship, but the team looked pretty good in its demolition of Pittsburgh on Monday. The next night, the Nittany Lions played a competitive game with No. 16 Texas A&M before getting buried under an avalanche of Robert Williams dunks in the second half.
Now that Brooklyn is in the rear-view mirror, there’s only one tomato can left on the schedule before hoops season heats up in a big way with three straight games against North Carolina State, Iowa, and Wisconsin. That tomato can is Oral Roberts, a Summit League program in Tulsa, Oklahoma that earned three consecutive NCAA Tournament bids a decade ago but has since fallen on hard times.
Scouting the Opposition
The coach that led the Golden Eagles to those three NCAA Tournaments, Scott Sutton, was surprisingly let go after the team won fewer than 10 games last year for the first time since 1994. The new head coach, longtime Baylor assistant Paul Mills, has quite a rebuilding project on his hands if early results are any indication.
After venturing outside of Division I for an opening win over Avila, Oral Roberts has dropped its last four games against Tulsa, Oklahoma State, Montana, and Pepperdine. The two most recent defeats are particularly alarming because they came against programs that a vintage Oral Roberts team likely would have dispatched with ease.
The Eagles have been hurt this year by the transfer of Kris Martin, who last season was the team’s third leading scorer with 13.2 points per game. Martin is now enrolled at Colorado State, and second leading scorer Jalen Bradley has graduated, leaving big man Albert Owens as the top returning player. Although he scored 17.4 points per game in 2016-17, Owens is down to 14.0 points per game this season to go with 4.8 rebounds per contest.
One player who is stepping up for Oral Roberts is Emmanuel Nzekwesi, and the sophomore showed off his versatility against Pepperdine with 17 points, seven rebounds, five assists, and three blocks in a losing effort. Although Nzekwesi is only an inch shorter than Owens, the underclassman has done a better job rebounding so far, and he’s got more range to his jump shot as well.
Leading the Eagles’ backcourt is Austin Ruder, a graduate transfer student from Missouri State who has given the Oral Roberts offense a shot in the arm. He’s already knocked down 16 three-pointers on 41 attempts, and after averaging fewer than five points per game as a fourth-year player at Missouri State last season, he’s scoring 12.8 points per game for Oral Roberts.
What to Watch for
Another two-man show? We expect Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens to be Penn State’s top two leading scorers in any given game, but on Tuesday night, the pair took that notion to the extreme. Carr and Stevens were the only Nittany Lions in double figures against Texas A&M, totaling 56 of Penn State’s 87 points for the evening. Against an opponent that is unlikely to score as much as the Aggies did, we’re expecting a more balanced output from the Lions in this one, if only because they should be playing from ahead in the second half.
Only dunks and layups? Oral Roberts has been one of the worst defensive teams in the country this year, allowing opponents to shoot 60 percent from inside the arc. The Eagles also struggle with turnovers on offense, and that could lead to many easy scoring opportunities for a Penn State team that played very well in transition during the two Brooklyn games.
Will Stevens share ownership of the offense? Stevens has appeared passive at points this season, but when he gets going on offense, he can turn aggressive. Just look at his performance against Texas A&M. Even with everything going through the hoop for Carr, Stevens found 25 points of his own on 16 field goal attempts and 11 free throws. He also made time for a season-high five assists, as well as seven rebounds and two blocks. It will be interesting to see if the sophomore can be a secondary playmaker more often instead of someone whose only job is to score buckets.
Penn State seemed to take its offense to the next level in Brooklyn, and if that carries over to the Bryce Jordan Center, the team should have no problem with Oral Roberts. Penn State 89, Oral Roberts 70