Penn State Basketball vs. Rutgers Preview: Lions Look to Return to Winning Ways

By Bill DiFilippo on March 6, 2019 at 7:30 am
Mar 2, 2019; Iowa City, IA, USA; The Rutgers Scarlet Knights bench reacts during the second half against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

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Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
14-14 (7-11 Big Ten)
Roster / Schedule
7:00 p.m. ET - Wednesday, March 6
Rutgers Athletic Center
Piscataway, NJ
Watch Info: BTN/BTN2Go
KenPom Rank: 69
Vegas Line: PSU -2

Jan. 26, 2019 looked like it had the potential to be the death knell for the Pat Chambers era in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions sat at 0-8 in Big Ten play and desperately needed a win. The good news was that Rutgers was headed to the Bryce Jordan Center ... and then, Penn State lost a 64-60 slugfest, one in which Lamar Stevens hit a jumper to put the Nittany Lions up two with 10:38 in the second half, followed by more than six minutes of the team failing to score from anywhere other than the free throw line.

A lot has changed since then. Penn State caught fire in the month of February, going from the conference's cellar dwellers to a team no one wants to face when the Big Ten Tournament rolls around. Stevens is playing like an All-Big Ten first-team selection, seemingly everyone on the roster has made progress as conference play has gone on, and the team is playing some of the best hoops of the Chambers era ... and in college basketball.

To drive this point home, Penn State will get the opportunity to show that it has, indeed, taken steps forward on Wednesday night, when the team travels to America's Best State (ed. note: the author of this post is from New Jersey) to take on the Scarlet Knights. They, too, are playing some really good ball for head coach Steve Pikiell, and will welcome the Nittany Lions with a raucous, sold out crowd for Senior Night.

Projected Starters
Penn State   RUTGERS
Jamari Wheeler - 6'1" - Soph. 1 Geo Baker - 6'4" - Soph.
Myles Dread - 6'4" - Fr. 2 Montez Mathis - 6'4" - Fr.
Josh Reaves - 6'4" - Sr. 3 Ron Harper Jr. - 6'6" - Fr.
Lamar Stevens - 6'8" - Jr. 4 Eugene Omoruyi - 6'7" - Jr.
John Harrar - 6'8" - Soph. 5 Shaquille Doorson - 7' - Sr.

The best way to describe Rutgers basketball is "a gigantic pain in the ass." The Scarlet Knights are the kind of tough, hard-nosed team that looks to overcome its deficiencies in talent by playing really, really hard, making life hell for opponents with the hopes of grinding out wins.

Lately, it's worked out pretty well. Rutgers sits at 14-14 on the year and 7-11 in Big Ten play. Its KenPom ranking of 69th nationally is the best in program history. Since starting conference play 1-6, the Scarlet Knights are 6-5, and are riding a two-game winning streak with victories over a pair of NCAA Tournament hopefuls: a 68-64 home win over Minnesota, followed by an impressive 86-72 road victory over Iowa.

Rutgers has taken positive strides offensively, even if it's not exactly a juggernaut on that side of the ball. The team is 146th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and 313rd in effective field goal percentage, but the Scarlet Knights can get after it on the offensive glass, sitting in 34th nationally by hauling in about one-third of their misses. Geo Baker is the team's standout guard, a fearless albeit inefficient sophomore, but the key will be keeping guys like Eugene Omoruyi, Shaquille Doorson, and Myles Johnson from grabbing boards and giving Rutgers multiple possessions. Stevens, John Harrar, and Mike Watkins are going to need to fight on the inside, and while the Scarlet Knights struggle to hit free throws, staying out of foul trouble is as crucial as ever.

The calling card for Pikiell's squad has been on defense, where the team is 39th in America in adjusted defensive efficiency. Their two-point defense has been excellent, allowing opponents to connect on 46.5 percent of their attempts inside the three-point line. They are susceptible to allowing shots from downtown — opponents are shooting nearly 36 percent from deep — so keep an eye on whether guys like Josh Reaves, Rasir Bolton, and Myles Dread can keep Rutgers honest and free up space for Stevens to go to work.

Prediction

Rutgers is flying high right now, picking up back-to-back wins against a pair of teams with NCAA Tournament aspirations. Penn State is decidedly not that, the RAC has served as a big of a little shop of horrors for Chambers and co. in the past, and those games haven't exactly featured the sell out Senior Night crowd we're going to see on Wednesday night. Stevens and Reaves have to be immense if the Nittany Lions can pull off the win, while the freshmen cannot look like freshmen. This game will come down to who can take over and hit big shots, and right now, Stevens is as good as anyone in the conference at doing this. Still, this one's going to be ugly. Penn State 63, Rutgers 59.

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