Penn State vs. Minnesota Preview: Battle of the Unraveleds

By Chad Markulics on January 15, 2018 at 10:35 am
Jan 6, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Gophers head coach Richard Pitino reacts to a call in the second half against the Indiana Hoosiers at Williams Arena.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

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Minnesota
Minnesota Golden Gophers
13-6 (2-4 B1G)
ROSTER / SCHEDULE
7:00 p.m. EST - Monday, January 15
BRYCE JORDAN CENTER
University Park, PA
TV Info: Big Ten Network | Live Stream
KenPom Rank: 69
Vegas Line: Penn State -7.5

Penn State's 76-74 overtime win over Nebraska on Friday night did little to inspire confidence that the Nittany Lions' season can be saved. If not for Tony Carr's overtime heroics, PSU would have suffered a devastating calamity in a game they led by as many as 16 in the second half. Nonetheless, it still goes down as a win in the standings, so PSU enters Monday's game against Minnesota with a 3-3 mark in the Big Ten.

The Golden Gophers (13-6, 2-4) are one of the few Big Ten teams in more dire straits than the Lions. Stud sophomore Amir Coffey is expected to be out until at least early February, and the university would be well-advised not to let Reggie Lynch on campus as investigations over multiple sexual assault allegations continue. In the absence of these key pieces, Rich Pitino's team has dropped three straight in downright ugly fashion. Their 81-47 loss against Purdue on Saturday was the program's worst home defeat in 49 years.

Projected Starters
Penn State   Minnesota
No. 5 - Jamari Wheeler - 6'1 - Fr. PG No. 2 - Nate Mason - 6'2 - Sr.
No. 33 - Shep Garner - 6'2 - Sr. SG No. 1 - Dupree McBrayer - 6'5 - Jr.
No. 10 - Tony Carr - 6'5 - So. SF No. 42 - Michael Hurt - 6'7 - So.
No. 11 - Lamar Stevens - 6'8 - So. PF No. 3 - Jordan Murphy - 6'6 - Jr.
No. 24 - Mike Watkins - 6'9 - RS So. C No. 21 - Bakary Konate - 6'11 - Sr.

Penn State is still dealing with the ongoing academic situation of Josh Reaves, who does not appear closer to returning any time soon. After starting Nazeer Bostick at Indiana, Chambers elected to insert Jamari Wheeler from the jump on Friday. It will be interesting to see who gets the nod tonight, but neither can replicate Reaves' impact on both ends of the floor. 

Scouting Report

Minnesota is using a deeper platoon to replace its lost starters, but that has not stopped the team's current free fall. Bakary Konate has been getting the most action in Lynch's stead, though he's obviously not nearly as effective as one of the country's best shot blockers. He'll be backed up by Gaston Diedhiou as they try to contain Mike Watkins, who will play against a depleted front line for the third-straight game. Watkins' double-double streak is currently at four consecutive games, and there's a great chance it extends this evening.

Minnesota Four Factors eFG % OReb % TO % FT Rate
Offense (69) 49.6% (219) 33.0% (67) 15.8% (24) 38.5 (69)
Defense (97) 47.3% (48) 29.4% (202) 17.4% (268) 23.8 (13)

The bigger issue for Pitino has been replacing the playmaking Coffey, a wing very much in the mold of Reaves offensively. Coffey's absence leaves sophomore Michael Hurt to start in his place and for senior Nate Mason and junior Jordan Murphy to carry the load. Make no mistake, the duo are very capable - Mason leads the team in three-point shooting (41 percent) and assists, and Murphy only recently stopped posting double-doubles. His streak of 17-straight to start the year was snapped at Northwestern on Jan. 10. 

With all the turmoil surrounding the Gophers lately, it's not hard to imagine that the remaining players would be distracted. What is hard to imagine is just how thoroughly romped they were by Northwestern a week ago. The Wildcats haven't been a good defensive team but completely shut Minnesota down on that end, limiting the Gophers to 9-for-31 shooting from inside the arc (29 percent). 

Keys to the game

Any coach who saw film of the Nebraska game on Friday and doesn't show Penn State some 1-3-1 zone at least occasionally should have their pay docked. The Nittany Lions looked completely lost trying to attack the Huskers' zone and were it not for Carr's shotmaking abilities, we'd be having a different conversation about this team right now. Pat Chambers has had a weekend with his team to strategize against any potential 1-3-1 looks. Minnesota hasn't been afraid to throw in some zone defenses, so expect Pitino to try to confuse PSU with different looks.

Despite his heroics on Friday, Carr struggled finding good shots. It's fairly obvious he's out of sync right now - he's shooting 21-80 from two-point range in conference play - and he's got to play better for Penn State to come close to its potential. It's pretty telling that the Lions struggled to put Nebraska away even with outstanding games from Watkins and Lamar Stevens. Stevens, by the way, is dominating Big Ten play right now. He's shooting nearly 60 percent from two-point range and 8-20 from three and has averaged 25.3 points per game over his last three contests. More of the same against Murphy should spell success for Penn State.

Penn State has struggled to force turnovers without Reaves in the lineup. That's to be expected when you lose the conference's leader in steals. Still, the Lions haven't come close to the nine swipes per game they average as a team without Reaves - they recorded only five at Assembly Hall and three steals in 45 minutes against Nebraska. For a team struggling in the halfcourt, creating transition opportunities would obviously be beneficial.

Prediction

Penn State hasn't been playing their best basketball of the season and missing their most versatile weapon, and yet I can't envision them losing this game against an even more downtrodden Minnesota team. Mason and Murphy are all-conference players on their day, but they're clearly out of sorts without Coffey and Lynch and have shown no signs of life since losing them. Stevens and Watkins are playing the best basketball of their careers and Carr has to be in a better mental space since hitting the game-winner against Nebraska. I see a higher-scoring game than last season's 52-50 rock fight without Lynch available for the Gophers. Penn State 74, Minnesota 69.

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