No. 22 Penn State at No. 16 Michigan State Preview: Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain

By Eric Gibson on February 4, 2020 at 8:21 am
Michigan State Point Guard Cassius Winston
© Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
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Michigan State Spartans
16-6 (8-3 Big Ten)
Roster / Schedule
8:00 p.m. ET - Tuesday, February 4
Breslin Center
East Lansing, Michigan
Watch Info: BTN I Gametracker
KenPom Rank: 9
Vegas Line: Michigan State -8.5

Well this is an unusual spot for Penn State basketball to say the least. An early February road trip to one of the toughest venues in the conference with Big Ten title implications on the line? I imagine you'd have to go back to the 1995-96 season to find a comparable game of this magnitude this late in the season, because I haven't seen it in my adulthood. 

The 22nd-ranked Nittany Lions are just 1.5 games back from the first-place Spartans, so a stunning upset tonight could really elevate what's already been an exciting season. A win in East Lansing would send a really strong statement to the Big Ten and alter the conference race. But it's not very likely to happen, and that's okay, as PSU is well on their way to its postseason goals. 

The Nits will have a mountain to climb in the Breslin Center tonight. Tom Izzo's Spartans are coming off another disappointing 64-63 road loss at Wisconsin where they got behind early. On the other hand, they've been downright unbeatable at home in the Big Ten. All six of their home wins so far were by double digits and an average margin of 77-59. The prevailing assumption is Izzo's team will be mentally prepared to bounce back big-time at home.  

Projected Starters
Penn State   Michigan state
Jamari Wheeler - 6'1" - Jr. 1 Cassius Winston - 6'1" - Sr.
Myreon Jones - 6'3" - So. 2 Rocket Watts - 6'2" - Fr.
Seth Lundy - 6'6" - Fr. 3 Aaron Henry - 6'6" - So.
Lamar Stevens - 6'8" - Sr. 4 Malik Hall - 6'7" - Fr.
John Harrar - 6'9" - Jr. 5 Xavier Tillman - 6'8" - Jr.

Chambers has continued to roll with John Harrar and Seth Lundy in his starting lineup the last five games, although Myles Dread and Mike Watkins both had huge games against Nebraska. Michigan State has shuffled their lineup in each of the last three games, as center Marcus Bingham now comes off the bench. So what we're saying is the starters are subject to change this evening.  

Scouting Report

This is Cassius Winston's team, as you can imagine. The senior point guard has been tremendous for four straight seasons. His individual numbers haven't been quite as good as last year when he finished fourth overall in KenPom's Player of the Year ratings. But if you haven't paid attention to college basketball, Winston's younger brother committed suicide just as the season started. He has admirably coped through that tragedy, and has been playing better in recent weeks.

Junior big man Xavier Tillman has been his partner in the pick-and-roll, but he's coming off his worst game of the season vs. Wisconsin. Tillman missed numerous bunnies on his way to a 3-for-15 shooting performance against the Badgers. He also missed a point-blank tip-in about two weeks ago in Assembly Hall that would've possibly sent that game to overtime. But, he still belongs in the Big Ten big man conversation as a tremendous offensive forward. He's just as good of a passer as he is a scorer. 

This Michigan State team still goes 10-deep even after adjusting to the preseason loss of senior guard Josh Langford. They were the consensus preseason favorites and are strong on both ends of the court. MSU has the number one defensive efficiency in conference play while they assist on the highest rate of made baskets on offense. But like most Izzo teams, attacking the glass remains a primary strength as well, something the Nits will have to neutralize to stay competitive.

keys to the game

Penn State has done a much better job during their four-game win streak of rebounding the ball. After a demoralizing performance on the boards in Minnesota, the Lions have held their opponents' under 30% offensive-rebounding percentage during this four-game win streak. They face one of their stiffest tests on the glass tonight, so PSU might have to sacrifice transition opportunities for their guards to stay underneath and dig out rebounds. Mike Watkins has to make an impact in this area as well for the Nittany Lions to have a chance.

The last (and only) time Penn State has won at the Breslin Center, they did so behind a three-point barrage led by Talor Battle in 2009. On Super Bowl Sunday 11 years ago, Battle's 29 points led a shocking 72-68 upset of the Spartans, who were 17-3 and in first place at the time. For history to repeat itself, the Lions will need another tremendous shooting performance from the likes of Myles Dread, Myreon Jones, and Curtis Jones. If PSU can make nine or more triples, they'll give themselves a chance. 

However, the biggest key for Penn State is how do they stop Cassius Winston? This is a huge test defensively for Jamari Wheeler. The Lions' pesky guard was at his best last week, but Winston's one of the best basketball players in college basketball. In my opinion, it's more likely Wheeler gets in foul trouble than shuts down one of the premier guards in college basketball. 

prediction

It's truly fun to consider what would happen if Penn State were to emerge victorious this evening, but you make predictions with your head, not your heart. While the Lions have yet to put a complete game together all season long, I don't think it happens tonight to upset the Spartans. Cassius Winston is too good, and I don't believe Wheeler's ball pressure will knock him off his game at home. If the Spartans gain an early edge, I've seen Penn State's offense devolve into iso-ball on the road far too many times to think they'll dig out of it. Michigan State 79, Penn State 69

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