It was a mere 9 days ago that Penn State came into Evanston winless in the Big Ten, and let's just say things didn't go very well for Northwestern. Some called that loss the worst of the Carmody era, and it's hard to disagree with that. Penn State was slightly better than their 0-12 conference record would indicate, but they are still not a good team and there's no denying it was an embarrassing loss. Tomorrow, the 'Cats visit State College hoping to avenge that loss and get some momentum going into the postseason. Tip-off will be bright and early at 11 AM central on the Big Ten Network, with Ari Wolfe and Shon Morris on the call.
Since we last saw Penn State, they have won at Michigan and lost at home to Ohio State, and now sit at 10-17 overall and 2-13 in the Big Ten. Because Northwestern played them so recently, I won't write the same detailed roster breakdown I did last time; you can just click here to refresh your memory. Instead, I'll just talk about what the 'Cats need to improve in if they are going to win this game.
First and most importantly, the defense needs to improve by a factor of about 1 million. In the first meeting, Penn State shot 56% from the field and got to the line for 23 free throws, making 20. Northwestern played match-up zone for much of the first half and it was ineffective, so Bill Carmody switched to the 1-3-1 zone for much of the rest of the game, and that was even worse. Before the game, everyone said the key was stopping Talor Battle, and while Battle was held to just 10 points, the rest of the Nittany Lion starting 5 all finished in double figures, led by David Jackson and Chris Babb who had 20 apiece. After further analysis, I actually think the key to beating Penn State is making Battle try to beat you by himself. He is averaging over 19 points per game in Big Ten play, but in their two conference wins he is only averaging 12 per game. What often happens is that when Penn State falls behind, Battle stops operating within the offense and either forces up difficult jump shots or recklessly attacks the basket. You could clearly see this happening in Penn State's loss to Ohio State, as Battle took NBA range threes early in the shot clock down the stretch, or drove into the trees and saw his shot rejected. So instead of making someone else beat them, Northwestern should instead just play their match-up zone and keep guys like Babb and Jackson from getting wide open shots, and let Battle chuck. He may get his 20+ points, but hopefully he will do so inefficiently and not get his teammates involved.
On offense, Northwestern did a pretty good job in the first meeting, shooting 48%, so they don't need to change too much there, but I would like to see them get the ball inside a bit more. Penn State doesn't have any big men who can block shots, and it showed in Evanston as NU shot 62% on 2-point field goals. Luka Mirkovic has been noticably better in the post of late; I can't remember the last time he got called for traveling. So hopefully he will continue to do work inside, and improve on his ugly 0 for 6 from the foul line the last time he faced Penn State. John Shurna has also been scoring more in the paint recently, and I don't see Jackson or Jeff Brooks being able to do much to slow him down.
Northwestern also needs to do a better job on the glass in this game, as they were out-rebounded 36 to 21 last time. However, that margin is due at least in part to the fact that the 'Cats missed way more field goals than Penn State in Evanston, and it's much easier to rebound your opponent's misses. So if the defensive effort improves, the rebounding should as well.
Looking at the line for this game, I was a bit surprised to see that Penn State is a two point favorite. I was expecting NU to be a slight favorite, or it to be a pick 'em at worst. Anyways, I have gone back and forth on my pick here about 5 times. Penn State has certainly shown improvement recently, and given how easily they won in Evanston, it's pretty easy to see them winning this game. However, this will be the seventh time this season that NU will have faced a Big Ten opponent for the second time, and each of the first 6 the 'Cats have been better in the second meeting. They avenged losses to Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa, beat Michigan by a lot more, and lost by less against Michigan State and Wisconsin. Of course that stat is due in part to the second meeting being at Welsh-Ryan in four of the six instances, and Northwestern can certainly improve on losing by 11 and still lose, but I think they will do just enough on defense to win this game.
Northwestern 66, Penn State 63
It's not going to be easy, but I don't think Northwestern will have too much trouble scoring, and it's unlikely that Penn State will shoot anywhere close to 56% from the field again as long as Carmody doesn't go to the 1-3-1. We'll see how it plays out tomorrow.