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Rutgers Men’s Basketball Game #29 Preview vs. Penn State

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Includes Steve Pikiell’s pregame thoughts, how to watch, stats, and keys to victory

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State (12-17; 5-13) At Rutgers (14-14; 7-11)

How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes

Where: The RAC in Piscataway, New Jersey (SOLD OUT)

Tip-off: Wednesday, March 6th at 7:00 p.m. ET

TV: BTN - Brandon Gaudin & Shon Morris

Stream: BTN2GO

Radio: Live Listen - WCTC 1450 AM/WOR 710 AM/XM 81/Sirius 81 - Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan; WRSU 88.7 FM - Matt Howe & Troy DeSavino

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers #70; Penn State #43

(Rutgers moved up 10 spots after the win over Iowa)

KenPom Prediction: Penn State 68 Rutgers 67 ; Rutgers has a 50% chance to win.

Vegas Line: Penn State -1.5

Series History: Penn State leads 40-33 all-time and lead 4-3 as members of the Big Ten. Rutgers won the last meeting on January 26, 2019 on the road by the score of 64-60.

SB Nation Penn State site: Black Shoe Diaries

Game 28 recap, four thoughts & big picture

About Penn State

It’s been a rocky road for head coach Pat Chambers, who is in his eighth season at Happy Valley. He was suspended earlier this season for pushing a player and Penn State started Big Ten play 0-10. However, they’ve been one of the top teams in the conference during the second half of league play, winners in 5 of its last 8 games. They beat ranked teams Michigan and Maryland at home, while knocking off a red hot Illinois team on the road. They just lost a 61-57 nailbiter at Wisconsin over the weekend and will be a very tough out on Wednesday night at the RAC. However, they are just 2-7 on the road in Big Ten play.

Like Rutgers, the Nittany Lions are experiencing growth from its younger players as this season has progressed. The freshmen trio of Rasir Bolton, Myles Dread, and Myreon Jones has started to mesh well with a strong core of Josh Reaves, Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins. A pair of sophomores have contributed as well in Jamari Wheeler and John Harrar.

They’ve been much better offensively of late, as they averaged over 85 points in their wins over Nebraska, Maryland and Illinois the last week plus of February. Stevens is one of the best players in the Big Ten. He is second in scoring in league play and is averaging 23.1 points on 45% shooting in his past 11 games. He is also very good at getting to the free throw line, as he has the 16th best rate in conference play and is shooting 79% from the charity stripe. The key for Penn State is balance, as they struggle at times to have enough complimentary scorers and that has caused them to fall short at times.

They aren’t a strong shooting team, like Rutgers, making 41.7% from the field, 32.0% from three-point range and 69.8% from the free throw line. They are playing like a middle of the pack Big Ten team from an efficiency perspective, ranking 10th offensively (99.7) and 8th defensively (103.1). PSU plays the third fastest tempo in league play (67.8), are fourth in offensive rebounding rate (30.8%), and fifth in getting to the line (free throw rate 33.6%). On the defensive end, they can force mistakes from opponents, as they have the best steal rate (11.0%) in Big Ten play, as well as third best turnover rate (19.0%). They also limit opponents well on the offensive glass, as they are allowing an offensive rebounding rate of just 25.8%, third best in the league.

Notable Contributors

Backcourt

6’2” freshman Rasir Bolton - 12.1 points, 2.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists

6’5” senior Josh Reaves - 10.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.4 steals

6’4” freshman Myles Dread - 8.8 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists

6’3” freshman Myreon Jones - 3.7 points, 1.0 rebound

6’1” sophomore Jamari Wheeler - 3.4 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.4 steals

Frontcourt

6’8” junior Lamar Stevens - 20.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists

6’9” junior Mike Watkins - 7.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.5 blocks

6’9” sophomore John Harrar - 3.3 points, 3.6 rebounds

Rutgers Notes: The Scarlet Knights are averaging 68.1 points per game this season and are shooting 41.8% from the floor, 32.1% from three-point range, and 62.4% from the free throw line. They are averaging 73.5 points in the past six games and have scored 68 or more in four of them. They own 8 quadrant 1 & 2 wins this season. KenPom has RU as the most improved high major program, based on improving 79 spots in efficiency rankings since the beginning of this season. In Big Ten play, Rutgers is ranked 12th in both offensive (98.6) and defensive efficiency (106.1).

Coach Pikiell Pregame Quote

“This team is really resilient. They get knocked down and keep getting back up. That’s a great trait that they have. Our young guys are really improving. It’s exciting to see them grow right in front of our eyes. The win out at Iowa was a really big night for us and shows that there’s even better days ahead for this program. Rutgers Nation has come out and support this team at The RAC this year, and we have a really difficult place for people to play us here. We’ve had great fan support. We just take it one game at a time, keep playing hard and playing with confidence.”

You can watch Pikiell’s pregame presser from Monday here:

Keys To Victory

The first meeting was a back and forth affair the entire game. Both teams had trouble scoring for stretches, but Rutgers won because of strong defensive play, Geo Baker making a big three late, as well as he and the rest of the team combining for 9 of 12 from the line in the last four minutes of the game. Both teams have improved and won five league games since they met in late in January.

Rutgers needs to take care of the basketball, as Penn State thrives on forcing turnovers and scoring off of them. Wisconsin committed just 5 against Penn State last weekend and held them to zero points off turnovers, but only won by four points. The Scarlet Knights won in part last time because they forced Penn State to execute its offense in the halfcourt and held them to 35% shooting overall. The Scarlet Knights have committed just 32 turnovers in the past three games, so they are reducing mistakes of late. They need to continue that upward trend against a team that leads the Big Ten in steal rate.

Limiting easy baskets for Penn State is hugely important and something Rutgers was excellent at against Iowa on Saturday. They held a 15-8 advantage over Penn State in second chance points in the first meeting and the battle on the boards is a huge key in this game.

There will be runs from both sides, but Rutgers needs to avoid drying up offensively for extended stretches. They’ve been much better lately of avoiding prolonged shooting slumps. That is why attacking the rim and not settling for jump shots is so important.

On the flip side, holding Iowa to almost ten minutes without a field goal was huge in winning that game. Rutgers has the ability to frustrate Penn State in the halfcourt, so defense as usual needs to be there from the opening tip. Stevens is going to score, the key is containing the rest of the Nittany Lions, as they can’t win if there aren’t three to four players scoring in double figures.

While Rutgers shouldn’t fall in love with three-pointers just because they went 11 of 23 in its last game, it is worth noting that Penn State is last in three-point defense, allowing opponents to shoot 38.3% from deep in conference play. The key for the Scarlet Knights is ball movement, as that created some great looks against Iowa and allowed themselves the opportunity to shoot so well from behind the arc. Taking three’s in rhythm of the offense is very important. Penn State is a solid team defensively overall, so ball movement is even more important in this game.

They still need to attack the rim and get to the free throw line. Rutgers did well in this area in the first meeting, as well as converting from the line, making 15 of 21 shots. Penn State has a defensive free throw rate of just 34.6% which is 12th in the Big Ten. Look for RU to establish Eugene Omoruyi, who participated in practice on Tuesday, in the low post early on. He and Myles Johnson need to be offensive threats in the paint and have the potential to get the bigs of Penn State in foul trouble. Establishing an inside game in the first half can open up things along the perimeter as the game progresses.

Montez Mathis was bottled up by Josh Reaves in the last meeting, but now Penn State has to contend with a red hot Ron Harper Jr. on the wing as well. It will be important for Geo Baker to orchestrate the offense in the same way that produced 9 assists against Iowa in an effort to breed more offensive balance in this game.

While Penn State struggles with scoring balance, Rutgers has really improved in this area as the freshman four have developed this season. In addition, in seven Big Ten wins this season, the Scarlet Knights have outscored its opponents bench by an average of 10.5 points per contest. Caleb McConnell has been good in multiple ways and Rutgers has been much harder to deal with when either Peter Kiss or Issa Thiam provide a scoring spark off the bench.

It’s the last home game of the season and senior night for Shaq Doorson. Rutgers has a chance to establish its second three-game conference win streak of the season, clinch a .500 record in the regular season, as well inch closer to a bye in next week’s Big Ten Tournament, and own the most conference wins that the program has had in 17 years. A chance to end a 13 year drought without a winning season would still be in play. Rutgers needs to come out focused and with energy. Feed the RAC faithful early by coming out of the gates ready to play and the home crowd will certainly be an advantage. The Scarlet Knights are 0-4 in home sellouts this season, but a win tonight would also complete a .500 record at the RAC in Big Ten play.

Appropriate Music Selection

For this game, I chose Rebellion (Lies) by Arcade Fire. This song is a bit angry and I hope Rutgers comes out with a chip on its shoulder. Being an underdog at home after back to back wins over teams projected in the NCAA Tournament shows there is more work to do before perception really changes regarding this team. They fell back three spots in the power rankings by Jon Crispin of BTN, despite beating a ranked team on the road last week. If Rutgers wants respect, winning this game and achieving all of the accomplishments that would come with it would go a long way towards getting it. If Rutgers wins and ultimately ensures a better than bottom four finish in the Big Ten, then the rebellion that this program hopes to bring the conference in the years to come will have officially begun.