Penn State at Minnesota Preview: Red Hot Gophers Look to Split Season Series

By Dan Smith on February 24, 2017 at 10:00 am
Penn State Nittany Lions guard Shep Garner (33) holds the ball as Minnesota Golden Gophers guard Nate Mason (2) defends during the first half at Bryce Jordan Center. Penn State defeated Minnesota 52-50.
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
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Opponent Minnesota Golden Gophers (21-7, 9-6)
When Saturday, 3 p.m. EST
Where Williams Arena
TV Big Ten Network
KenPom Rank 32nd Overall
87th Offense
14th Defense
KenPom Line Minnesota -10 (75-65, 81%)

Penn State dropped its third heartbreaker of the season Tuesday night, falling to No. 16 Purdue 74-70 in overtime at the Bryce Jordan Center. A furious comeback spearheaded by freshman point guard Tony Carr was not enough as the Nittany Lions could not get the job done in overtime.

The loss puts pressure on Penn State (14-14, 6-9 Big Ten) to win two of its final three regular season games to keep its hopes of an NIT berth alive. Even if you consider the NIT too lofty a goal for this team, the Nittany Lions are still playing for a first day bye in the Big Ten Tournament. 

The first of those final three games is this Saturday's matchup at the Barn against Minnesota. The two teams faced off at the Bryce Jordan Center on January 14 in an ugly game that saw the Nittany Lions sneak away with a 52-50 win.

projected starters
Penn State   Minnesota
Tony Carr (Fr, 6-3) 1 Nate Mason (Jr, 6-2)
Shep Garner (Jr, 6-2) 2 Akeem Springs (Sr, 6-4)
Josh Reaves (So, 6-4) 3 Amir Coffey (Fr, 6-8)
Lamar Stevens (Fr, 6-7) 4 Jordan Murphy (So, 6-6)
Mike Watkins  (RS Fr, 6-9) 5 Reggie Lynch (RS Jr, 6-10)

Scouting Report

The last time these teams played, Penn State caught Minnesota at home in what was the second game of a five-game losing streak. The Gophers have since rebounded, rattling off six straight through the heart of their Big Ten schedule that culminated in a big 89-75 win Wednesday at Maryland.

The Gophers rely on the trio of junior Nate Mason, sophomore Jordan Murphy, and freshman Amir Coffey to carry the load. All three have averaged 32 minutes or more per game during the six game win streak. Joining Coffey on the wing has been the platoon of Akeem Springs and Dupree McBrayer. Both are good shooters from the outside, with Springs in particular staking most of his game on knocking down plenty of threes.

Down low, Reggie Lynch is one of the few players who can claim to be a better shot blocker than Mike Watkins. However, Lynch has struggled to stay on the floor this season due to foul trouble, and the Gophers have had to rely on freshman reserve Eric Curry. Curry has been solid enough as a rebounder and defender to let the team off the hook in Lynch's absence.

Keys to the Game

Help for Mike Watkins. The freshman big man had his way against Minnesota the first time around, basically carrying the team to a tight victory with his 15-point, 15-rebound performance. A tremendous individual effort like that is unlikely to get the job done a second time without some backup. Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens have played well down the stretch, and should be better than their first time against the Gophers.

The real question, once again, will be the three-point shooting of their upperclassmen. Shep Garner has had an up-and-down season that has seen his ball handling falter and his shot become inconsistent. While Garner at least provides solid defense even when his offense has crumbled, Payton Banks has been invisible without his shooting. If he is missing threes, it usually spells trouble for Penn State, as Banks provides little rebounding or driving ability. But with a thin bench, Banks is going to get minutes no matter what.

Prediction

Minnesota has locked themselves into an NCAA Tournament bid and are just playing for seeding in both that and the Big Ten Tournament at this point. Penn State is on the flip side of that coin, out of the running for the ultimate postseason invitation and desperately trying to salvage a first day bye and possible NIT slot. If this was a home game, I'd feel like Penn State had a good shot to pull off the upset. Not at the Barn. Minnesota 73, Penn State 62.

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