by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
The Big Ten season could not have started out in a more demoralizing way for Northwestern. The Wildcats didn’t just lose their first two conference games. They were eminently obliterated; the final scoring margins do not scream competitive, or even remotely interesting (28-point loss to Michigan; 18-point loss at Minnesota), nor was Northwestern ever close to springing an upset against either team. All of the concerns about this team’s scoring impotence and poor rebounding and short bench were validated, and probably underscored by the level of competition. Michigan and Minnesota are the class of the Big Ten (Indiana belongs in that category, too), and they made sure to dispatch of Northwestern in swift and decisive fashion. Now the Wildcats get an easier matchup at Penn State, who, like Northwestern, opened up the Big Ten portion of its season with two losses.
They share another unfortunate quality with the Wildcats: season-altering injury. Do-everything guard Tim Frazier will miss the rest of the season thanks to a torn Achilles tendon. The Lions, to the great surprise of no one, have struggled to adjust. For Penn State, losing Frazier is more debilitating than Drew Crawford’s or JerShonn Cobb’s season-long absence. Frazier was their offensive catalyst, an underrated defender and the unquestioned floor leader. Let’s dive into the Frazier-less Nittany Lions and see where NU stacks up against their first conference road matchup.
Three Players To Watch
D.J. Newbill (sophomore, guard)
After a breaking out as a freshman with Southern Miss two seasons ago, Newbill opted to transfer, the expectation being that he would team up with Frazier to anchor Penn State’s backcourt. He would make a nice complement to Frazier’s scoring and playmaking, the thinking went. Frazier’s injury has forced Newbill into a more prominent offensive role. Newbill is Penn State’s primary scoring option, and he almost never comes off the floor (he plays 87.5 percent of available minutes). Most players welcome more touches and shots. The difficulty lies in allocating those opportunities efficiently, and Newbill has struggled in that regard. His 93.5 offensive rating is a bit low for someone who uses 29.2 percent of available possessions (the 68th highest percentage in the country) and takes 26.4 percent of his team’s shots. The problem is, Penn State needs Newbill to dominate the ball and hoard shot attempts. Newbill has obliged, but there is obvious room for improvement.
Jermaine Marshall (junior, guard)
The strong point of Penn State’s offense is its perimeter scoring potential. Newbill and Marshall can manufacture offense off the dribble and break down defenses individually. They are the keys to Penn State’s offensive gameplans. When the Nittany Lions run their halfcourt sets, the ball invariably flows through Newbill or Marshall. Newbill on average takes more shots than Marshall, but the latter scores the ball more efficiently and offers an overall stronger defensive effort. Northwestern’s depleted backcourt has allowed guards to roam free on the perimeter, and you can expect Marshall to target the Wildcats’ shaky perimeter D. The loss of Frazier heightened Marshall’s scoring demands, and so far, he’s been up to bat. He will be a flashpoint in Northwestern’s defensive plans Thursday night.
Ross Travis (sophomore, forward)
In this year’s rugged Big Ten, Penn State will be fortunate to finish outside of the bottom three. The Lions are short on talent, and having Frazier go down was a major blow. They can’t expect to win games on talent or athleticism. It’s going to require toughness and effort and grinding determination – which is why Travis, who earned the nickname “junkyard dog” from coach Patrick Chambers last season, is a microcosm of the style Penn State needs to exude in order to make some noise in conference play. Chambers approaches the game in s simple but admirable way. He runs and crashes the glass and locks arms with opposing frontcourt players. His offensive game is neither efficient nor aesthetically pleasing, but if there’s one thing Chambers does well, it’s rebound – his offensive and defensive rebounding percentages are higher than any other teammate who uses at least 16 percent of available possessions. The Lions don’t offer much size or refined offensive potential on the low block, and Travis can’t change that. What he will do is work and attack and make life difficult for opposing big men.
Key Matchup: Reggie Hearn vs. D.J. Newbill/Jermaine Marshall
Coming up with these individual matchups entails a bit of guesswork. Northwestern’s wacky 1-3-1 defense obscures traditional 1-on-1 matchups, so it’s difficult to single out specific players, because more often than not, the Wildcats occupy realms of space rather than focus on individual opponents. Here’s what I know about Northwestern’s defense: when the Wildcats need a stop, when an opponent is penetrating the lane and creating good looks for his teammates, Hearn can limit the damage. Without Cobb, Hearn – even if his ankle problems hinder his athletic capabilities – is the Wildcats’ most reliable perimeter defender. He locks onto his man, gets in his personal space and battles him every time down the floor. Hearn has two primary defensive assignments Thursday night: Newbill and Marshall. The perimeter duo is the epicenter of Penn State’s offensive focus. They can either knife into the lane and finish at the rim themselves or draw extra help defenders to facilitate opportunities for teammates.
Either way, Newbill and Marshall make Penn State’s offense go, and Hearn will be counted upon to face up both players at various points. Northwestern hasn’t been scoring the ball all that well lately. Penn State’s lenient defense (and more specifically their three-point defense, which ranks 300th nationally) offers a perfect opportunity to turn things around, but if Northwestern hope to pick up its first Big Ten win, the primary focus needs to be on limiting Penn State’s guard duo. If the Wildcats can limit Newbill and/or Marshall, the scoring burden won’t be anything like the uphill climb Northwestern has faced in its past two games, and the offense can proceed in a less frenetic manner. Northwestern needs to take away Penn State’s biggest strength, and Hearn is crucial to that underlying strategic aim.