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Rutgers Basketball Game Preview Game 24: Penn State

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What does Steve Pikiell think about the state of his team ahead of this matchup? Find out here.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

How To Watch & Listen

Rutgers (12-11; 1-9) At Penn State (12-11; 4-6)

Where: Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pennsylvania

Tip-off: Saturday, February 4th at 1:00 p.m. ET

TV: ESPNU - Clay Matvick and Sean Harrington

Radio: WCTC 1450 AM & WOR 710 AM - Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan; WRSU 88.7 FM

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers #145; Penn State #92

KenPom Prediction: Penn State 70 Rutgers 62; Rutgers is given a 23% chance of winning

Series History: Penn State leads the series 40-30 all-time, including the past two meetings.

1st Meeting Game Recap: Penn State 60 Rutgers 47

Injury Updates on Jonathan Laurent and Nigel Johnson

Laurent has missed the past two games and Nigel didn’t play the entire second half of the Iowa game. Pikiell gave an update, indicating both players were due in for treatment today.

“They are day to day. John has a sprained ankle and hopefully we will have him back soon. Nigel, I don’t know, a bruise, I guess is what they’re calling it. I don’t know what that means.”

About Penn State

The Nittany Lions are similar to Rutgers in the fact that they are a strong defensive team that struggles shooting the ball. They are the worst two performing teams on the offensive end in Big Ten play, but both are in the top half defensively. However, Penn State is just better in both areas compared to the Scarlet Knights. The one edge Rutgers has is on the glass, as they are a far superior rebounding team. You wouldn’t think that from their first meeting though, as Rutgers only held a +1 margin on the boards.

One area that is concerning is that Penn State leads the conference in free throw rate and Rutgers fouls their opponents a lot. Although PSU has struggled from the line during conference play, shooting just 68%, they are shooting 74% from the entire season. If Rutgers is a step slow or gets over aggressive, Penn State can make them pay at the line, especially if they can get into the bonus early in both halves.

Penn State has a strong core of six players, all of whom average 8 points or more per game, with four averaging at least 12 points per game. They are a solid three-point shooting team, averaging 36% from behind the arc. For a full listing of their individual stats, click here.

One other point, Penn State is coming off their own heartbreaking loss, a triple overtime defeat at Indiana this past Wednesday. How they respond will be something to watch for as well.

Here is what Pikiell had to say about Penn State:

“We have to play really well. Penn State is very talented. Tony Carr, the freshman point guard, I think he is an NBA point guard. Shep Garner is the leading scorer for them. Lamar Stevens will be on the all-rookie team. Mike Watkins I think is one of the best shot blockers in the country. So we are playing a really good, talented team at their place. They beat us the first time, so we have to play very well. We have to be tough. Toughness is not one of our strengths and we have to be tougher in these games. The other night is not who we are going to be and not who we are. Hopefully, you will see a team who is back to what we were against Wisconsin and Indiana at Indiana and all those things.”

Steve Pikiell Challenges Rutgers

Head coach Steve Pikiell was understandably upset after the Iowa loss on Tuesday, in what was easily the worst performance of the season from the team. Here is what Pikiell had to say this morning on a conference call about their approach moving forward and what it will take for them to get better as a team:

“I want to change a lot. That wasn’t who we are the last game. That has to change. We’ve played hard in every game this year, no matter what the score was or no matter who the opponent was. That wasn’t us. We have to change that.”

“They have to do some soul searching and I think that is a part of it. Leadership isn’t an easy thing. You can’t just tap someone on the shoulder and they know how to lead. It really needs to come from everybody. That has been our theme here moving forward. Everyone has to get a little better, everyone has to eliminate one turnover, everyone has to eliminate one shot, everyone has to eliminate one miscommunication. This isn’t a group that just one guy is going to be able to do that. Everyone has to get a little better. That was the theme, everyone has to get a little more committed, everyone has to be in the gym a little bit more. If everyone does a little bit more, it will make us a lot better.”

Keys To The Game

Gut Check Time

This game is hugely important, not only in the win-loss column, but as a litmus test for the rest of the season. How this team responds to adversity in this game will tell us everything we need to know, now that the calendar has turned to February and the losses are piling up. Is this team going to dig deeper and pull themselves out of this hole, or are they going to pack it in and resort to blowout losses similar to last season? Only they can answer that and this game is a huge opportunity for them to prove their character and toughness. Here is what Pikiell had to say about his hope regarding their response against Penn State:

“I’m hoping we respond the right way. We are a young team and maturity isn’t one of our strengths either. Hoping we respond and fight and play the way we have been playing, which was together and tough and overcoming obstacles. We always have scoring droughts in the game and we need to just stick with the course and fight through it. The other night was an unusual night I hope. They (Iowa) took their first swing at us and we didn’t get off the mat. That’s not a characteristic of this year’s team. We have to get back to who we are and that’s tough and overachieving, scrappy, and all those other kind of things that you can do in the course of a game and that you have to do in a league like this where teams are very talented and well coached.”

Rediscover their defensive identity

This team peaked on the defensive end against Wisconsin, holding them to 45 points in 40 minutes of regulation. It was a tremendous effort that almost led to one of the biggest upsets in all of college basketball this season. They fell apart at the end of regulation and in overtime. They followed that up by playing the worst defensively they had all season against Iowa. For the sake of this game and the rest of the season, Rutgers needs to get back to playing fundamentally sound, intense defense. They need to eliminate open space on the perimeter, be relentless with ball pressure and not allow for easy baskets. It will be fascinating to see how they respond on the road in this game. They played great defense against Penn State the first time and need an even better performance this time around.

Deshawn Freeman Must Be Involved

The co-captain only took four shots in the first meeting against Penn State, more on that in a moment, and must be a focal point in this game. He is a more active rebounder when he is heavily involved in the offense. Sure, partly because he grabs more offensive rebounds due to his own misses, but he seems to exude more energy as the game goes on. The two games against Iowa are a great example of that, where he averaged 18 points and 13 rebounds, while shooting over 60% in both contests. Rutgers needs that Freeman in this game, not a passive player. The guards need to feed him early and often.

Attack The Rim & Make The Freebies

In the first meeting, Rutgers was 3 of 20 from three-point range and it’s been a point of emphasis to reduce that many shots from behind the arc since the loss to Penn State. Rutgers shooting just 28% from three-point range on the season and just 26% in Big Ten play. However, they have reduced their attempts per game since the first meeting against Penn State, taking more than a dozen shots from deep in only two games since. They will need to continue that approach tomorrow and pound it inside, either with guards attacking from the wings or feeding the big men. I asked Pikiell about the change, both in recent play and regarding strategy this time around against Penn State. He had this to say:

“We don’t want to shoot three’s, that’s not one of our strengths, even though our guys tend to want to shoot three’s. That is what is available to us, that’s the strategy of the other team. We are trying not to play into the other team’s strategy. We’ve gotten the ball inside more now, but we have to go from getting the ball inside to making free throws. We’ve stopped taking three’s, or limited the amount, and we are trying to throw the ball more inside. The next step is now we need to take advantage from the free throw line when we do get the ball inside and when we are fouled. That’s something I think we’ve changed since the last time we’ve played them. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of taking on the characteristic of who we should be.”

In The Bonus

Rutgers is still searching for their first road win ever in conference play, as they stand at 0-23 in their third season in the Big Ten so far. Their first conference win ever came against Penn State on January 3rd, 2015. Perhaps, the basketball gods will bring some symmetry and bless the program’s first road win against the very same Nittany Lions. For that to happen, Rutgers needs to do some “soul searching” as Pikiell said and put together their most complete effort of the season. We can only hope!