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Rutgers men’s basketball game preview vs. No. 20 Penn State

Both teams are riding five game winning streaks. Find out how to watch, stats, keys to victory & pregame quotes from coach Pikiell and players.

Seton Hall v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

No. 20 Penn State (12-2; 2-1) at Rutgers (11-3; 2-1)

How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes

Where: The RAC (8,000) in Piscataway, New Jersey

Tip-off: Tuesday, January 7th at 7:00 p.m. ET. Note alternate traffic pattern due to game being sold out.

TV: BTN - Brandon Gaudin and Bob Wenzel

Stream: Fox Sports App

Radio: Live Listen - Rutgers Sports Properties Radio Network (WCTC 1450 AM/WOR 710 AM/XM 383; Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan); WRSU 88.7 FM (Justin Sontupe and Jake Ostrove)

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers 43rd; Penn State 21st; Rutgers has moved up 5 spots since the win over Nebraska. Penn State moved up 5 spots after a win over Iowa.

Efficiency Rankings: Rutgers - Offense 104.7 (86th) Defense 89.6 (25th); Penn State - Offense 108.6 (32nd) Defense 90.3 (32nd)

KenPom Prediction: Rutgers 70 Penn State 69; Rutgers has a 54% chance to win

OTB Guide to KenPom

Vegas Line: Rutgers opened -2, currently Penn State -1.5

Series History: Penn State leads the all-time series 41-33. Both teams won on the road against each other last season, with Penn State winning 66-65 on March 6, 2019.

SB Nation’s Penn State Site: Black Shoe Diaries

Key Contributors

Penn State - 6’8” senior Lamar Stevens (16.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.2 blocks); 6’3” sophomore Myreon Jones (13.8 points, 3.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.4 steals. 40.0% 3-pt range); 6’4” sophomore Izaiah Brockington (10.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.2 steals); 6’9” senior Mike Watkins (10.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, 3.5 blocks, 1.1 steals, 61.0% FG); 6’4” sophomore Myles Dread (8.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.0 steal); 6’4” senior Curtis Jones (7.9 points, 2.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists); 6’1” junior Jamari Wheeler (4.1 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.8 steals); 6’6” freshman Seth Lundy (4.0 points, 2.0 rebounds)

Rutgers - 6’6” sophomore Ron Harper Jr. (11.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.1 steals); 6’4” junior Geo Baker (11.4 points, 4.0 assists, 2.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals); 6’10” sophomore Myles Johnson (9.7 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 71.8% FG); 6’6” senior Akwasi Yeboah (9.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 41.0% 3-pt FG); 6’2” junior Jacob Young (8.2 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists); 6’7” sophomore Caleb McConnell (7.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 42.3% 3-pt FG); 6’4” sophomore Montez Mathis (6.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.1 steals); 6’6” freshman Paul Mulcahy (4.0 points, 2.6 assists, 2.6 rebounds, 59.5% FG); 6’9” senior Shaq Carter (3.9 points, 2.4 rebounds, 57.5% FG)

Penn State Scouting Report

Head coach Pat Chambers has the Nittany Lions clicking on all cylinders in his ninth season at Happy Valley, as they’ve won five in a row and are ranked 20th in this week’s AP Poll. They beat a ranked Iowa team on Saturday in front of a spirited crowd at the Palestra, and also own wins over Maryland, Alabama, Yale, Syracuse, and Georgetown.

This season, PSU has proven to be a potent offensive team, as they are averaging 81.0 points per game and have scored 80+ eight times this season. They play a fast tempo (35th nationally), so they generate a lot of offensive possessions. Lamar Stevens is an all-conference player who can take over any game. Mike Watkins is a true rim defender that when he’s at his best is a two way threat that gives opponents all they can handle. Myreon Jones is the best deep threat on the team (32-80, 40.0%).

As a team, the Nittany Lions are shooting 45.4% from the floor, 31.7% from three-point range and 69.1% from the free throw line. They don’t turn it over much while generating opponent takeaways at a high rate. Their defense is always tough and this season is no exception, as they are in the top 20 nationally in block percentage (9th), 2-pt field goal defense (13th), and steal percentage (16th).

Injury Report

Rutgers captain Geo Baker is out indefinitely with a broken left thumb.

Notes: As a team, Rutgers is shooting 47.6% from the floor, 29.7% from three-point range, and 64.3% from the free throw line......The Scarlet Knights are 7th nationally in rebounding margin (+10.3), 16th in scoring defense (59.6), and 17th in rebounds per game (41.5) and fiel goal percentage defense (37.4%)....Rutgers is undefeated this season at the RAC (10-0), as well as when shooting better than opponents (9-0) and limiting opponents to under 60 points per game (8-0).....The Scarlet Knights have outrebounded its opponents in every game but one this season......RU has an RPI ranking of 26th and 29th in the NET rankings that are used by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to determine the field of 68 at the end of the season.

Pregame Quotes

Steve Pikiell

Thoughts on the matchup

“Penn State is playing really well. Pat Chambers has done a really great job. He’s got a ton of really good players. They pass the ball and play the right way. They’re good defensively and they can score. Hopefully the RAC is jumping. It’s a sellout. That’s exciting especially during winter break. We have a huge ranked team that’s playing as good as anyone coming in our building and that’s a great opportunity for us. Our guys are good at being one game at a time. We have a sold out RAC with two days to prepare. We have to be ready to play and they’re going to come in here with a ton of confidence.”

On Why Penn State has had a successful season so far

“They lead the league in steals and blocked shots - two huge categories. They have great chemistry and I think the best player in the league in Lamar Stevens. When you have the best player on the floor good things happen. They’re just playing really well. They have a lot weapons - 3-point shooters, drivers, and a lot of answers.”

On Rutgers dealing with expectations

“I try to talk them very little about expectations. We were picked 12th in the league. We have 17 league games left and I think 11 or 12 of those are against ranked or receiving votes teams. We’re just trying to play really well against Penn State and be organized and have a good game plan. Hopefully the RAC is jumping. It’s a sellout. That’s exciting especially during winter break. We have a huge ranked team that’s playing as good as anyone coming in our building and that’s a great opportunity for us. Our guys are good at being one game at a time.”

On the progress of Jacob Young

“For all the new guys coming in, you have to figure it out a little bit. He’s done a good job and he’s had good practices. He’s turned into a good defender. He’s got elite speed. Pleased with how he’s come along.”

The key to the 18-1 run against Nebraska and runaway victory

“We settled in and defended. I like defense. It was good to do it on the road. I play a lot of guys and one guy goes down and the next guy is ready. Caleb stepped up and so did all the guys. I faith in all of them. I like our bench and our energy.”

On how Geo Baker is handing his injury

“Geo’s a good leader. He’s been good on the bench and he’s helped us in practice. The other guys have stepped up. I think he’s doing as well as you can when you’re disappointed. He worked hard this summer to get better. He’ll get through this obstacle.”

On using last season’s 1 point loss to PSU as motivation

“Honestly, no. I haven’t brought that up at all. They’re a different team and they’re playing great basketball. We have a sold out RAC with two days to prepare. We have to be ready to play and they’re going to come in here with a ton of confidence.”

Caleb McConnell

On his breakout game vs. Nebraska

“It all starts with having good practices. I work hard every day, so when coach Pike told me we were losing one of our leaders I had to come in and control the team, play at a good pace, and make sure the team is ready to go.”

On playing in front of a sellout crowd

“It helps us a lot. We’ve been playing very well at the RAC lately, so that helps a lot. Playing a game against a team like this is always going to be difficult, so the RAC always helps us out. Our focus is just to win.”

How Geo has helped him filling in

“Even though he’s hurt, he’s still being a leader on and off the court. Geo told me to just play hard and control the team.”

Myles Johnson

On using last season’s 1 point loss to PSU as motivation

“It was a tough loss back then, but this is a whole different time. I haven’t thought about it. This is just another Big Ten game we have to win.”

On his progress this season

“I’ve let the game to come me and not overthink anything. I try to keep my mind clear. My body is in better shape than it’s ever been.”

Tweet Fact of the Day

Keys To Victory

Win the battle in the paint

Rutgers has to win the battle on the glass, as well as convert scoring chances near the rim in this game to win. In three Big Ten games this season, PSU is 13th in opponent’s offensive rebounding percentage at 39.6%, so Myles Johnson (7th best offensive rebounding rate in the nation) should have plenty of chances to make an impact. Watkins changes opponent’s shots in the paint, which is why PSU defends two-point field goals so well. Their one on one matchup is likely the most important in this game. Also, Rutgers is 25th nationally and 3rd in Big Ten play from two-point range, so that needs to continue tonight. They need to attack the rim with dribble penetration and make layups, while taking advantage of second chance scoring opportunities as well. Rutgers should have an advantage with the team’s all hands on deck approach to rebounding, something that could negate the impact of Watkins and limit PSU to one shot possessions. The more Rutgers can keep PSU from running and make it a battle in the interior, the better off they will be.

Avoid Foul Trouble/Get to the line

Penn State has the worst defensive free throw rate in Big Ten play at 48.3%, which means opponents get to the line often. Both Watkins and Stevens got into foul trouble against Iowa and that will be a key tonight for Rutgers. On the flip side, Myles Johnson has done a much better job of late in staying out of foul trouble. However, that has to continue and may be a difficult prospect with a physical game expected. He needs to maintain his composure in the early going when the adrenaline is pumping and the refs are feeling out the game. Rutgers needs to get to the line often and convert at a high rate, as it’s unlikely they can expect to score in the high 70’s without doing so, which is what it might take to win the game. They shown an ability to focus from the line in key spots and that needs to be there tonight.

Don’t Get Sloppy with the basketball

Rutgers has struggled with turnovers and sloppy stretches at times this season and need to avoid it tonight. It won’t be easy against a ball hawking Penn State team that features Myles Dread as a defensive stopper. Look for him to try and neutralize Caleb McConnell, who was a perfect 8 of 8 for 20 points in starting for Geo Baker against Nebraska. Passing needs to be crisp, as Rutgers needs to generate plenty of ball movement in their halfcourt offense to get open looks and make PSU work defensively. This leads me to my next point, as two key ball handlers will be important for RU. They can’t allow for PSU to get easy baskets in transition off of turnovers.

Battle of the Benches

Both teams have weapons coming off the bench and whichever side plays better is likely to be a difference maker in this game. Penn State got 46 points from its bench in the win over Iowa, as Izaiah Brockington scored a career high 23 points and Curtis Jones scored 16 points. This was the key in the win over Iowa, as stars Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins only combined to score 20 points. As for Rutgers, Jacob Young scored 16 off the bench in the win over Nebraska and is hugely important in this game. His ability to attack the rim and generate quick scores is an asset, but he must continue to play under control and not succumb to the ball pressure Penn State will bring. Paul Mulcahy is key as well and his passing ability can create scoring chances out of thin air. With all that being said, it would be really helpful for Shaq Carter to have a productive game on both ends of the floor, in what has been a mostly down season for him so far. If Myles Johnson gets into foul trouble, Rutgers will desperately need him to step up.

Next Man Up, Part II

McConnell and Young both had big games with Baker out last Friday at Nebraska. While they both need to play well tonight, one player I’m looking at to step up is grad transfer Akwasi Yeboah. After shooting 50% from the floor and scoring 9 or more points in of the first 11 games of this season but one, Yeboah has shot just 7 of 23 (30.4%) and scored just a combined 17 points in his last three contests. He has plenty of big game experience, can knock down timely three’s and is one of the toughest players on the team. Rutgers needs a big game out of him tonight. Lastly, I’ve said all along Ron Harper Jr. needs to become a star for Rutgers to make a significant leap up the Big Ten standings this season. He has had a bit of an up and down campaign so far, but has steadily become a reliable defender and rebounder while quietly scoring 8+ points in every game but two this season. His big game potential needs to become a reality tonight for Rutgers to win.

Appropriate Music Selection

For the fifteenth game of the season, I’m featuring When My Time Comes by Dawes. They are an underrated band and in When My Time Comes, I find the line of “I wanted to pay for my successes with all my defeats” most appropriate for this game. Rutgers was handed a one point, stomach punch loss to Penn State at home last season with a chance to win it on the last possession. Pikiell and the team downplayed that game yesterday in a conference call, but this rematch is hugely important to this season and the program’s progression. You know Myles Johnson has thought about that final possession for almost a year now. RU has also let two winnable games slip away this season against St. Bonaventure and Pitt. They know they need this victory to go where they want to in March. Their time has come to deliver in what should be a frenzied environment at the RAC.