Penn State vs. No. 6 Michigan State Preview: Nittany Lions Still Searching For First Big Ten Win

By Bill DiFilippo on January 13, 2019 at 7:30 am
Jan 8, 2019; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans guard Cassius Winston (5) stands on the court during the second half of a game against the Purdue Boilermakers at the Breslin Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
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Michigan State Spartans
No. 6 Michigan State Spartans
14-2 (5-0 Big Ten)
Roster / Schedule
4:30 p.m. ET - Sunday, January 13
Bryce Jordan Center
State College, Pennsylvania
Watch Info: CBS
KenPom Rank: 3
Vegas Line: Michigan State -7.5

Penn State fought valiantly in the unfriendly confines of Pinnacle Bank Arena on Thursday, but came up short to the Nebraska Cornhuskers, falling 70-64 in Pat Chambers' return to the bench following a one-game suspension. Instead of getting home and having some time to rest following the loss, the Nittany Lions have a quick turnaround, hosting a game on Sunday afternoon.

Oh, and that quick turnaround is against the biggest challenge the team will face at this juncture of the season: A nationally televised matchup against the mighty Michigan State Spartans, which very well could be the last thing a team looking for its first conference win of the year wants to see.

The Spartans come into this game on fire, sitting at 14-2 on the season with a 5-0 mark in Big Ten play. They've won their last nine in a row, most recently a 77-59 drubbing of Purdue in East Lansing on Tuesday. Coming out of this one with a win is an awfully tall task for Chambers and co., as it'll require a near-perfect basketball game, but in the event they find a way to pull this one out, the Nittany Lions would get a potentially season-altering win right as the conference schedule becomes more manageable. 

Projected Starters
Penn State   MICHIGAN STATE
Rasir Bolton - 6'2" - Fr. 1 Cassius Winston - 6'1" - Jr.
Myles Dread - 6'4" - Fr. 2 Matt McQuaid - 6'5" - Sr.
Josh Reaves - 6'4" - Sr. 3 Kyle Aherns - 6'6" - RS Jr.
Lamar Stevens - 6'8" - Jr. 4 Kenny Goins - 6'7" - RS Sr.
Mike Watkins - 6'9" - RS Jr. 5 Nick Ward - 6'9" - Jr.

Scouting Report

You'll never believe this, but a Tom Izzo squad with veteran contributors has looked like it could end up being the class of the Big Ten and has legitimate Final Four aspirations. The Spartan starting unit has five players with at least three years of collegiate experience, even with junior wing Joshua Langford — who averages 15 points on the year — missing the last few games with a lingering ankle injury. Langford has already been ruled out for Sunday.

Winston is the engine that makes the high-powered Spartan offense go. A former top-50 recruit, Winston is a wonderful floor general, someone who sets up his teammates masterfully — he's fifth nationally in assist rate, which is down from his freshman and sophomore years, both of which saw him second in the nation. Winston is lethal from downtown as well, connecting on 45.7 percent of his triples. On the year, his 18 points and 7.4 assists per game both lead Michigan State.

He forms quite the 1-2 punch with Ward, a mountain of a human whose ability to score, rebound, and block shots will require the best game we've seen out of Mike Watkins this season. Oh, and Ward (16.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.6 blocks per game) leads the nation in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, so pray to every god in the known universe that the Nittany Lion bigs can defend without fouling.

Langford's replacement, Kyle Ahrens, who has been banged up lately. Izzo said he's going to "keep an eye on" the situation. McQuaid, a sharpshooting guard, and Goins, who inhales rebounds, round out the Spartan starters. Off the bench, Xavier Tillman is a sophomore forward who can be a menace down low on both ends of the floor.

Keys to the game

Penn State's defense might have to have its best game of the year. The Spartan offense has been outstanding this season, ranked third in KenPom in adjusted offensive efficiency, sixth in effective field goal percentage, 11th in three-point field goal percentage, and 15th in two-point field goal percentage. Michigan State wants to push the ball, too, as it's 96th in adjusted tempo nationally. The Nittany Lions have to have their best game of the season on both ends of the floor — good luck making two-pointers against Sparty — but it all starts on the defense. Slow things down, make them miss shots, and hope for the best.

Prediction

Having said all that, my goodness, Michigan State is good this year. Winston and Ward are a dynamic duo, and with how the Nittany Lion offense has struggled to get off the ground, it's really hard to see the blue and white moving to 1-5 in conference play on the season. Perhaps some homecourt magic occurs, but in all likelihood, Penn State will have to wait until Iowa comes to town later in the week to hopefully get that elusive first Big Ten win. Michigan State 81, Penn State 65.

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