Penn State vs Northwestern Preview: Lions Must Defend Homecourt Against Wildcats

By Eric Gibson on January 5, 2018 at 10:18 am
Dererk Pardon

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

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NU
Northwestern Wildcats
10-6 (1-2 B1G)
ROSTER / SCHEDULE
8 p.m. EST - Friday, January 5, 2018
BRYCE JORDAN CENTER
University Park, PA
TV Info: Fox Sports 1 | Live Stream
KenPom Rank: 65
Vegas Line: Penn State -6.5

If Penn State doesn't want their season to slip from their shaky hands, they better emerge victorious tonight against the Northwestern Wildcats at the BJC. The Nittany Lions currently sit at 11-5 with just a 1-2 Big Ten record against the 230th-ranked strength of schedule thus far. Their only top-100 KenPom win at Iowa continues to look worse by the day, as the Hawkeyes sit 9-8 and 0-4 in the Big Ten with three straight road games on the horizon.

We're about halfway through the season, and the Nittany Lions have no meaningful wins under their belts. They've already piled up four losses in winnable games, a few that shouldn't have even been close to begin with. But what's done is done, and the opportunity to string together a few wins is right in front of their faces over the next four games.

That run begins tonight against last year's media darlings who made their first NCAA tournament ever in school history. Led by Bryant McIntosh, the Wildcats racked up 24 wins, including a second round victory over Vanderbilt in the tourney. With Chris Collins set to return over 80 percent of that team, expectations were high for another year in the real postseason. 

But those expectations are already dead. Similar to Penn State, Northwestern has yet to win any game of note this season. Their best victory came in a 72-68 overtime derp-fest against Illinois. They were just cut up at "home" (the Allstate Arena while Welsh-Ryan undergoes renovation) by Nebraska to the tune of 70-55, but in their defense, McIntosh sat out with a knee injury suffered against Brown. His status is questionable hearing into this evening's contest, but it's likely he'll play considering how dire their season has already become.  

Projected Starters
Penn State   NORTHWESTERN
No. 10 - Tony Carr - 6'5 - So. PG No. 30 - Bryant McIntosh - 6'3 - Sr.
No. 33 - Shep Garner - 6'2 - Sr. SG No. 20 - Scottie Lindsey - 6'5 - Sr.
No. 23 - Josh Reaves - 6'4 - Jr. SF No. 4 - Vic Law - 6'7 - RS Jr.
No. 11 - Lamar Stevens - 6'8 - So. PF No. 44 - Gavin Skelly - 6'8 - Sr.
No. 24 - Mike Watkins - 6'9 - RS So. C No. 5 - Dererk Pardon - 6'8 - Jr.

Scouting Report

Northwestern has really struggled on the defensive end this season, a surprising development under Collins. The Wildcats had been building their program on the defensive end ever since the former Duke assistant arrived in Evanston. But this year, they are allowing teams to effectively shoot 51.3 percent, a significantly higher figure than his previous four squads. Perhaps the loss of Sanjay Lumpkin was far more important to the Wildcats' defense than anyone originally thought?

In their four games this year against NCAA tournament teams, they've been absolutely torched for at least 1.2 points-per-possession in every one. Trae Young of Oklahoma is destroying the entire sport, so that 104-78 loss can be looked past, but the Wildcats also gave up 92 points at home to Creighton and were thoroughly embarrassed against Texas Tech in November (85-49). 

Offensively, they've been more consistent, but without McIntosh on Tuesday, they were a mess against the Cornhuskers. Their senior point guard is the lynchpin to the entire offense as the facilitator. Without him, Vic Law, Dererk Pardon, and Scottie Lindsey combined to shoot just 12-43 (28 percent) from the floor.  

Keys to the game

This is a game Penn State should win. They are at home, have better athletes and defend better than their opponent. If McIntosh can't go, there's really no excuse for the Lions to not take care of their business. 

NW Four Factors eFG % OReb % TO % FT Rate
Offense (56) 50.7% (174) 29.2% (175) 17.1% (64) 33.0 (198)
Defense (95) 51.3% (204) 25.1% (37) 21.2% (74) 41.0 (294)

Whether or not McIntosh plays should have no bearing on how Pat Chambers deploys the 1-2-2 press. While it was surprisingly absent in College Park, the head coach explained after the game that his respect for Anthony Cowan's blazing speed was the primary reason why it wasn't used against the Terps. McIntosh is one of the better point guards in this league who has been around the longest, but part of the Lions' winning formula is forcing turnovers. I expect to see a lot more pressure against the Wildcats, especially with three days rest before their next game.

On the offensive end, Penn State needs to figure out what exactly they're trying to do. The primary playmakers haven't been getting the job done, forcing too many poor looks from mid-range off of iso moves. Tony Carr is shooting an astonishingly bad 9-43 (20.9 percent) from inside the arc in his first three league games. Lamar Stevens continues to prefer the mid-range jumper than absorbing contact in the lane and getting to the foul line. 

Meanwhile, Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins have been phenomenal with significantly fewer possessions. Watkins never seems to touch the ball enough considering he can also pass out of the post, while Reaves has posted a ridiculous 133.7 offensive rating on just a 16.8 usage rate for the season. If the sophomores continue their slump in conference play, this duo needs to get the ball to see if they can turn the offense around. 

Prediction

Neither of these underachieving teams are having good seasons, but I'm going to stick with the home team, even if they're 1-6 in one-possession or overtime games at the BJC since last year. This figures to be a close game with McIntosh, but the Nittany Lions should dismantle the Wildcats' attack without him. With his status up in the air, I'll take the Lions to cover with a comfortable-enough 8-point win. Penn State 71, Northwestern 63. 

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