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Rutgers Basketball Game 15 Preview: Penn State

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at St. John Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

How To Watch, Stream & Listen

Penn State (8-6; 0-1) At Rutgers (11-3; 0-1)

Where: The RAC in Piscataway, New Jersey

Tip-off: Sunday, January 1st at 2:30 p.m. ET

TV: ESPNU - Jay Alter and Dalen Cuff

Stream: WatchESPN

Radio: WCTC 1450 AM & WOR 710 AM - Chris Carlin & Joe Boylan

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers #117; Penn State #105

KenPom Prediction: Rutgers 73 Penn State 70 ; Rutgers is given a 61% chance to win.

Series History: Rutgers has only played two opponents more than Penn State in program history and Sunday will mark the 63rd meeting between the schools. PSU leads 35-27, but this is just their 7th meeting since 1991, back when they were both members of the Atlantic 10 conference. This will be their 4th meeting as members of the Big Ten, with Penn State winning the past two, after Rutgers won the first matchup at the RAC on January 3rd, 2015.

Injury/Health Updates:

I was on a conference call with head coach Steve Pikiell on Friday afternoon and the first question he was asked was the status of Corey Sanders, who suffered a sprained ankle in the loss to Wisconsin on Tuesday. Pikiell’s response was “he’s fine, he practiced today, he’s fine. It was a regular mild sprain.” When asked if he expected him to play against Penn State on Sunday, barring any setbacks, Pikiell said “yes”.

After playing just 3 minutes against Fordham and sitting out the entire game against Seton Hall, freshman wing Issa Thiam returned to play 17 minutes against Wisconsin. However, he struggled to find much rhythm in his return from being sick for the better part of a week. I asked Pikiell about his status and he replied, “He was sick for awhile there. I’m glad to have him back. He’s healthy now and has had some good practices too under his belt. I expect him to start playing a little bit better and I think he does too.”

About Penn State

Head coach Pat Chambers assembled a challenging non-conference schedule, as Penn State lost games to Duke, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, while beating George Washington, Georgia Tech, and St. John’s. The Nittany Lions suffered two disappointing losses to Albany and George Mason, although both programs are traditionally very good mid-major teams.

They entered conference play with an 8-5 record before getting their doors blown off at home to Northwestern on Tuesday. Penn State trailed by 19 points at the half and by 24 points with just about five minutes left in the game, before making a late run to make the score more respectable, ultimately losing 87-77.

Penn State is an intriguing team to be honest, because they do have a lot of talented and highly ranked former recruits. They are led by junior guard Shep Garner, who scores over 14 points and shoots 37% from three-point range, as well as adding 3 assists and 3 rebounds per game. Center Mike Watkins is a beast inside and is second in the country with 3.3 blocks per game, to go along with his almost double-double line of 10.4 points & 8.4 rebounds average. Guard Josh Reaves, who has missed a few games at the start of this season due to a lower leg injury, leads the Big Ten with 2.7 steals per game and is scoring just under 9 points per contest.

Penn State also have two talented freshman in point guard Tony Carr and wing Lamar Stevens. Carr is averaging 11.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. Stevens is second behind Garner in scoring and rebounding behind Watkins, as he averages 12.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. Another player to know is junior forward Payton Banks, who is averaging 11.6 points per game and is shooting 40% from behind the arc.

While all six players mentioned have the ability to cause trouble in this game, overall Penn State is still developing as a team. They haven't been anything more than average this season with shooting or rebounding and while they do force a lot of turnovers, their defense is not as strong as Rutgers. It's definitely a team Rutgers can beat, which leads us to the keys to victory in this game.

Keys To The Game

Transition Defense

Penn State plays a fast paced style and is quick to shoot the basketball on offense. They are 29th in the country in adjusted tempo, according to the KenPom rankings, which is a measurement of estimated possessions a team would have in a game against a team that plays at an average pace. Here is what Pikiell had to say about Penn State’s style and how Rutgers has to defend against it:

“They take a shot every 14.8 seconds, Penn State, so we obviously have to do a terrific job of getting back and doing a great job in transition. But we’re going to play the way we play, which is terrific defense, whether it’s a short shot clock or a long shot clock. I think we’re built to play 30 seconds on the defensive end of the floor. I think the better defenses play later in the shot clock anyways.”

Expect Pikiell to substitute early and often in this game, something that he has tended to do all season anyway. However, it will be even more important for Rutgers to keep pace on the floor and not allow for many easy baskets for Penn State. The harder that the Nittany Lions have to work to score in the halfcourt, the more it will play into Rutgers’ hands.

Dominate The Glass

That leads to the next key, which is for Rutgers to own the boards against Penn State. While Penn State shoots a lot, they are only averaging 42% from the field this season. That means there will be a lot of opportunities on the glass and Rutgers needs to limit second chance points for the Nittany Lions. On the flip side, Rutgers did a good job against Wisconsin in grabbing 16 offensive rebounds, despite the loss. Deshawn Freeman entered this week leading the Big Ten with 3.6 offensive boards per game and will need to be active tomorrow, as well as the entire team. Getting Mike Watkins into foul trouble is important as well, as his defensive presence due to his ability to block shots and rebound, will cause problems for Rutgers in the paint. The less he is on the floor, the better. Penn State is an average rebounding team at best with him and much less so without him.

Ball Control

Penn State leads the Big Ten in steals and also forces their opponents into 15.5 turnovers per game, most in the league as well. However, that doesn’t mean Rutgers isn’t going to look to push the pace up and down the floor. In regards to Penn State’s style, Pikiell said “we want to run, no matter who we play, I don’t think that will ever change.” Rutgers must limit turnovers and when they do have the ball on offense in the halfcourt, I think they need to make Penn State play defense for most of the shot clock. That means multiple ball reversals and spreading the defense out. Penn State plays mostly man to man defense, but when they did try a zone against Northwestern, they often broke down due to good ball movement.

Battle At Free Throw Line

Penn State is one of the top teams in country from the free throw line, as they average 78% from the charity stripe. Rutgers has to keep up from the line and proved they are capable doing that when they are locked in. They shot well against Seton Hall, when they made 22 of 28 attempts for 79%. However, they are still only shooting 67% from the free throw line this season. If they struggle tomorrow and Penn State gets to the line early and often, it will be an uphill battle for Rutgers in this game.

In The Bonus

Let’s hope for the biggest home crowd of the season for the first Big Ten game at the RAC this season, despite it being a New Year’s Day matinee. For the bonus though, here is what coach Pikiell had to say in the conference call about Penn State and his thought’s ahead of the game:

“This is a really talented Penn State team. I think their recruiting class was ranked their best class in a long time at Penn State, so I love the talent in their class. I think they’re well coached and have won some really good games that they’ve played on their schedule. They have one of the best shot blockers in the country in redshirt freshman Mike Watkins, who I think could play anywhere. I really love their talent level. Shep Garner has been around forever, it seems like, he can really score the ball. This will be a real good test for us, as are all the games we play in this league, but especially a home contest like this. I think we’re well prepared, we’ve had a little time here to prepare. Again, love Penn State’s talent, they do have some youth, but it’s talented youth. Hopefully we will be up for the task. Again, I like when we have a few days to prep for a team, I think that will help us a lot too.”

Hopefully, Rutgers can ring in the new year with a victory!

For more on Penn State ahead of this game, click here for my Q&A with the Black Shoe Diaries.