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Preview: Penn State at Northwestern

Northwestern looks for their 6th straight Big Ten home win tonight against the last place Penn St. Nittany Lions. Tip-off is at 7:30 central on the Big Ten Network, with Wayne Larrivee, Tim Doyle, and Jon Crispin on the call. Does anyone else find it a little odd that Jon Crispin works for BTN and does a lot of Penn State games despite the fact that he abandoned the Lions after his sophomore year and transferred to UCLA? I don't think it would go over too well with fans if Geno Carlisle started broadcasting NU games. Of course, Crispin wasn't nearly the player Carlisle was.

Anyways, onto the game. Penn State comes into this game at 8-16 overall and 0-12 in the conference, and they are looking at the very real possibility of becoming the first team to go winless in the Big Ten since Northwestern in 1999-00. Their only win all season over a decent team came at Virginia as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and they have suffered ugly losses to Tulane, UNC-Wilmington, Iowa and Indiana. Most recently, they lost by 11 at home to Michigan State on Saturday.

Despite being the conference's worst team, Penn State has one of the conference's best players in junior guard Talor Battle. During conference play, Battle leads his team in scoring, rebounding, assists, and steals, and would be a lock for All-Big Ten if it weren't for his team's terrible record. He can attack the basket off the dribble and is a very dangerous outside shooter. He shoots just 43% from the field, but because the Lions' offense often seems to be to stand around for 30 seconds and then let Battle go one on one, he's been forced to take some very difficult shots.

Aside from Battle, there isn't much to get excited about, as no one else on the roster averages double figures in scoring. Junior forward David Jackson is second on the team in points at just under 10 a game, but has been stepping it up lately, with at least 10 points in 6 straight games. Sophomore guard Chris Babb is pretty much the only other guy capable of putting points on the board. He's a 3-point specialist but has been far from spectacular at just 33% from behind the arc in Big Ten play. Babb certainly has the potential to get hot and hit 6 or 7 threes tonight though, as he should get some looks against the NU zone and isn't bashful when it comes to shot selection. The rest of their rotation features big men Andrew Jones and Andrew Ott, forwards Jeff Brooks and Bill Edwards, and guard Tim Frazier.

Looking at Penn State's team stats, the biggest weakness that stands out is their lack of 3-point defense. Opponents have hit 37% of their threes against the Lions, which is in the bottom 50 nationally. Given the 'Cats 3-point oriented offense, that's a matchup that bodes well. Penn State also ranks in the bottom 10 nationally in turnovers forced and blocked shots, so their interior defense hasn't been great either. One thing they do very well is defensive rebounding, where Penn State ranks a surprising 3rd in the nation, grabbing nearly 75% of their opponents misses. On offense, the only thing Penn State does reasonably well is not turn the ball over, as they don't shoot a high percentage, get to the line very often, or offensive rebound.

Despite all of their struggles, Penn State is still playing hard and has been competitive in 10 of their 12 Big Ten losses, so I don't expect this to be as easy a game as it would appear on paper. That is reflected in the line, which has NU as just a 7 point favorite, compared to the 9.5 they were favored by at home against Indiana. I certainly don't expect a loss tonight, but if NU struggles from 3-point range and Battle finally gets some help, Penn State could manage to pull off the upset. I think this game will be close for far longer than any NU fans will like, but in the end Ed DeChellis will screw things up down the stretch like he has all year and the 'Cats will escape.

Northwestern 65, Penn State 61

This is a bit of a trap game for Northwestern, as they've only had two days to move on from the hard-fought win over Minnesota and may be looking ahead to Wisconsin on Sunday. Look for them to come out flat, but eventually put it away in the final minutes. See everyone tonight for the game thread.