Penn State at Minnesota Preview: Nittany Lions in Spoiler Mode at Desperate Gophers

By Chad Markulics on January 19, 2019 at 12:02 pm
Jan 8, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers forward Jordan Murphy (3) reacts after a play made by center Daniel Oturu (25) during the first half against the Maryland Terrapins at Williams Arena

Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

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Minnesota Golden Gophers
Minnesota Golden Gophers
13-4 (3-3 Big Ten)
Roster / Schedule
8:30 p.m. ET - Saturday, January 19
Williams Arena
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Watch Info: BTN/BTN2Go
KenPom Rank: 64
Vegas Line: Minnesota -4.5

Penn State's search for a first Big Ten win continues tonight in Minneapolis. The Nittany Lions (7-11, 0-7) are coming off of their best offensive performance in Big Ten play against Iowa during the week, but their defense faltered down the stretch with the game in the balance. It's getting tense in Happy Valley - Patrick Chambers continues to insist that his team is capable of playing at a postseason level, but the signs of the team Chambers must be seeing in practice are few and far between.

The road has never been kind to Penn State and rarely is to any Big Ten basketball team, but their opponents on Saturday night will be under some pressure to make corrections and keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive. The Golden Gophers sit 67th in the NET rankings after playing a lackluster non-conference schedule and dropping some winnable road games, and cannot afford to slip to this winless Penn State team.

Projected Starters
Penn State   Minnesota
Jamari Wheeler - 6'1" - Soph. 1 Amir Coffey - 6'8" - Jr.
Myles Dread - 6'4" - Fr. 2 Gabe Kalscheur - 6'4" - Fr.
Josh Reaves - 6'4" - Sr. 3 Dupree McBrayer - 6'5" - Sr.
Lamar Stevens - 6'8" - Jr. 4 Jordan Murphy - 6'7" - Sr.
Mike Watkins - 6'9" - RS Jr. 5 Daniel Oturu - 6'10" - Fr.

Jamari Wheeler has gotten the nod at point guard from Pat Chambers over the last two games in place of Rasir Bolton. The sophomore was inserted to give Penn State more defensive mettle but also impressed on the offensive end against Iowa with a career-high seven assists. The move also sparked Bolton, so no reason to change that tonight.

Scouting Report

Minnesota has been a solid, above-average team for most of the season. Most, not all. Their 95-68 loss at Illinois was a head-scratcher - the Illini have been one of the worst teams in the Big Ten but dominated the Gophers from start to finish in Champaign, most notably on the glass. Illinois kept Minnesota off the offensive glass and scored inside at will en route to the 27-point win. 

Penn State is capable of replicating that with Mike Watkins and Lamar Stevens (who needs to bounce back from a wretched effort on Wednesday). For all his double-doubles, Jordan Murphy is still undersized to defend inside against Stevens, and Mike Watkins has been looking like his old self again. He'll match up with freshman center Daniel Oturu, who's had a good season on the offensive end but just got lit up for 25 by Giorgi Bezhanishvili. 

Point guard play has been the other concern for Minnesota. Isaiah Washington came in as a four-star recruit but has had his share of ups and downs under Pitino. Washington has the nation's eighth-best assist rate, but that's buoyed by three double-digit dime games against Nebraska-Omaha, North Florida, and North Carolina A&T. Against high-level competition he's all but disappeared, and he's only seeing 37% of available minutes over the last five games. Ergo, Minnesota doesn't play with a true point guard often, with Amir Coffey serving as a faux point. 

The positives begin with Coffey, Murphy and Oturu for Minnesota. Coffey is a unique player, with point guard-like skills in a wing's body. His size will create a matchup problem for whomever guards him, whether that's Wheeler or Josh Reaves. The aforementioned Murphy is indeed a double-double machine, capable of some insane stat lines as one of the nation's best rebounders. He put up 22 and 19 in the BJC last season.

Predicition

Penn State's efforts against the middle eight of the Big Ten have been discouraging, but not hopeless. The game at Nebraska, in particular, was a glimpse at the kind of problems the Nittany Lions are capable of causing as a spoiler. But it's still too difficult to call for a road win for this program, and Minnesota can't afford to drop this one. Minnesota 75, Penn State 69.

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