No. 13 Penn State vs. Northwestern Preview: Nittany Lions Look to Stay Hot Against Struggling Wildcats

By Nick Polak on February 14, 2020 at 8:30 am
Feb 12, 2020; Evanston, Illinois, USA; Northwestern Wildcats center Ryan Young (15) grabs a rebound in front of Michigan Wolverines guard Franz Wagner (21) during the first half at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
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Northwestern Wildcats
6-17 (1-12 Big Ten)
Roster / Schedule
12:00 p.m. ET - Saturday, February 15
Bryce Jordan Center
University Park, PA
Watch Info: BTN/Fox Sports Go | Gametracker
KenPom Rank: 130
Read: Latest Bracket Predictions

What a season this is turning out to be for Penn State. The Nittany Lions are currently riding a seven-game winning streak. That includes road wins at Michigan, Nebraska, Michigan State, and Purdue. It has been a program-defining stretch, and this team doesn't seem to have any desire to let this record-breaking run come to a close any time soon.

Perhaps the most encouraging part of this season for Penn State has been the fact that they've been able to do it all as a team, and not be forced to rely simply on one or two players. Case and point? They just beat Minnesota and Purdue without second-leading scorer Myreon Jones. The national media has spent the last week or so shoveling praise upon the Lions, and they'll have a chance to earn more on Saturday.

It's been a rough go for Northwestern in the 2019-20 season. Such is often the case when there are just two senior contributors on the roster. However, the fans were hoping for better results than what they've gotten so far. While they've mostly been able to keep within striking range on the scoreboard, the Wildcats have won just three times since December, and are currently riding an eight-game losing streak.

Projected Starters
Northwestern   Penn State
Boo Buie - 6'2" - Fr. 1 Jamari Wheeler - 6'1" - Jr.
Pat Spencer - 6'3" - Sr. 2 Myles Dread - 6'4" - So.
Miller Kopp - 6'7" - So. 3 Seth Lundy - 6'6" - Fr.
Robbie Beran - 6'9" - Fr. 4 Lamar Stevens - 6'8" - Sr.
Ryan Young - 6'10" - Fr. 5 John Harrar - 6'9" - Jr.

The freshmen have taken over in Evanston, and the inexperience has proven to be costly. Kopp and Spencer are the leading scorers, averaging 13.3 and 10.7 points per game, respectively. Buie, Beran, and Young have performed admirably in their introductory seasons, but they'll need a lot more from this starting-five if they are going to keep up with Penn State.

We've yet to hear official word on whether or not Jones will be back in the lineup for Penn State. He seemed to imply good health with an Instagram post (2020 is crazy, man) but given that he's missed the previous two games, we'll assume the team plays it safe. Dread has also played very well over the past few games in the absence of Jones.

Scouting Report

Simply put, this Northwestern team really struggles to score. That's what shooting just 41.5% from the floor as a team will get you. The Wildcats have hit the 70-point mark just nine times this season, and one of those games included overtime. For comparison's sake, Penn State has only been held under 70 points four times all season.

That's not to say that Chris Collins' squad will simply roll over though, much the opposite in fact. Despite its lowly record, Northwestern has kept it within single digits in losses to Rutgers, Purdue, Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota recently. They'll hustle on defense and have done a decent enough job of keeping teams from running away. They simply don't have the horses to keep their opponents down all game long, and they don't have the offensive firepower to keep up.

Really, the only player to watch out for is Kopp. He can fill it up from deep if he gets hot, but he's been a bit inconsistent in that area this season. Look for Stevens to match up with the lengthy sophomore, and expect to see a Nittany Lion defense hungry to force turnovers.

Keys to the Game

When it comes to keys to the game, most of them lie on the Penn State side of things. No disrespect to Northwestern (Penn State fans know far too well what it's like to root for a team that plays hard and gets close, but can never quite get the win), but the Nittany Lions are playing at a much higher level right now. If Pat Chambers can keep his team focused and playing their game, this should be a pretty straight-forward Saturday.

  1. Get Mike Watkins and John Harrar involved early. Yes, Northwestern has some good size on the interior, but Penn State's big men should be able to feast on the youth and inexperience of Beran and Young. The Nittany Lion offense is at its best when it can count on at least one of these two to create scoring opportunities in the paint.
  2. Control the ball. Though they were never truly in danger of falling victim to a comeback in West Lafayette, the ball-handling and decision-making towards the end of the Purdue game left a lot to be desired. The Lions are the much more talented team in this matchup. If they can simply avoid turnovers and be smart on the offensive end, this one shouldn't be any trouble.
  3. Keep Kopp contained. As mentioned, Kopp is really the only player on the Wildcat roster worth worrying about. Corralling him should be priorities one, two, and three of the defensive end of the floor. It would be surprising to see someone other than Stevens on him while he's in the game. Northwestern's path to victory lies with a massive game from the sophomore forward.

Prediction

The final stretch is upon us. Just seven games remain in the regular season, and with Maryland holding a slim, one-game advantage in the standings, Penn State's dream for a Big Ten regular-season title is very much alive. It would be very easy to look at this game against the last-place Wildcats and see it as a prime opportunity for a classic Penn State meltdown. But this isn't that team. This isn't that year. These aren't the players to lay an egg in front of a nearly-full Bryce Jordan Center on the last home Saturday of the season. Penn State 78, Northwestern 60

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