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Rutgers men’s basketball preview at no. 16/14 Penn State

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The Scarlet Knights head to Happy Valley for a crucial road contest. Find out how to watch, stats, and keys to victory.

Penn State v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Rutgers (18-10; 9-8) at No. 16/14 Penn State (20-7; 10-6)

How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes

Where: Bryce Jordan Center in Happy Valley, Pennsylvania

Tip-off: Wednesday, February 26 at 7:00 p.m.

TV: BTN - Jason Horowitz & Shon Morris

Stream: Fox Sports App

Radio: Live Listen - Rutgers Sports Properties Radio Network - WCTC 1450 AM/WOR 710 AM/XM 382; Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan; WRSU 88.7 FM (Justin Sontupe and Jake Ostrove)

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers 32nd, Penn State 21st; Rutgers has moved back 1 spot since the loss to Wisconsin. Penn State dropped 6 spots after a loss to Indiana.

Efficiency Rankings: Rutgers - Offense 106.9 (74th) Defense 90.2 (14th); Penn State - Offense 110.5 (36th) Defense 90.4 (16th)

KenPom Prediction: Penn State 71 Rutgers 65; Rutgers has a 30% chance to win.

OTB Guide to KenPom

Vegas Line: Opened with Penn State -6; down to -5 as of 12:25 p.m. ET.

Series History: Penn State leads the all-time series 41-34, but Rutgers won earlier this January at the RAC by the final score of 72-61.

SB Nation’s Penn State Site: Black Shoe Diaries

Key Contributors

Penn State - 6’8” senior Lamar Stevens (18.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.1 blocks); 6’3” sophomore Myreon Jones (14.1 points, 3.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 41.3% 3-pt range); 6’9” senior Mike Watkins (9.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, 55.0% FG); 6’4” sophomore Izaiah Brockington (8.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.0 steal); 6’4” sophomore Myles Dread (8.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.0 steal); 6’4” senior Curtis Jones (6.4 points, 2.4 rebounds, 1.2 assists); 6’6” freshman Seth Lundy (4.8 points, 2.5 rebounds, 39.7% 3-pt FG); 6’1” junior Jamari Wheeler (4.0 points, 3.1 assists, 2.7 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 50.6% FG); 6’9” junior John Harrar (3.8 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.0 assist, 64.4% FG)

Rutgers - 6’6” sophomore Ron Harper Jr. (12.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 32.7% 3-pt FG); 6’4” junior Geo Baker (10.7 points, 3.6 assists, 2.9 rebounds, 1.2 steals); 6’6” senior Akwasi Yeboah (10.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 36.5% 3-pt FG); 6’2” junior Jacob Young (8.0 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists); 6’10” sophomore Myles Johnson (7.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 1.0 assist, 60.5% FG); 6’7” sophomore Caleb McConnell (7.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.7 assists); 6’4” sophomore Montez Mathis (7.1 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.0 steal); 6’6” freshman Paul Mulcahy (3.9 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 57.0% FG); 6’9” senior Shaq Carter (3.5 points, 2.5 rebounds, 58.2% FG)

Penn State Scouting Report

Head coach Pat Chambers had the Nittany Lions into the top ten of the national polls last week after putting together an impressive 8 game winning streak. However, after winning the last three without second leading scorer Myreon Jones, Penn State lost two games in a row last week to Illinois at home and Indiana on the road. Jones has missed five games in a row due to an undisclosed illness. He did travel to Indiana and was in the layup line in pregame warmups, but he ultimately didn’t play. There is no update on his status as of yet for Wednesday’s game against Rutgers, other than that he remains day-to-day. If his status is updated later on Wednesday, I’ll include that here.

This season, PSU has proven to be a potent offensive team, as they are averaging 76.1 points per game and have scored 80+ points in eleven games this season. As a team, the Nittany Lions are shooting 44.3% from the floor, 32.8 % from three-point range and 69.2% from the free throw line. They are currently 5th in offensive efficiency in Big Ten play and 8th in defensive efficiency.

They play a fast tempo (3rd in Big Ten, 45th 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, like he did in the first half back in January at the RAC. Myreon Jones is the best deep threat on the team (52-126, 41.3%) and he scored a team high 21 points in the first meeting, so if he plays Rutgers has to defend him better.

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 50 nationally in 2-pt field goal defense (30th), steal rate (33rd) and block rate (48th).

Notes

As a team, Rutgers is averaging 69.8 points per game and is shooting 44.6% from the floor, 30.1% from three-point range, and 65.2% from the free throw line......Rutgers is currently 9th in Big Ten play in offensive efficiency and 4th in defensive efficiency.......The Scarlet Knights have the following national ranks: 12th in field goal percentage defense (38.4%); 16th in rebounding (40.07); 18th in scoring defense (62.6); 22nd in rebounding margin (+6.3), 34th in blocks (4.6)........RU has an RPI ranking of 53 and 34 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......The remaining schedule for Rutgers ranks first in difficulty per the ESPN BPI.

Keys To Victory

Don’t Fall Behind By Double Digits

A key to breaking through on the road on Wednesday night is not falling behind by a significant margin. It takes a tremendous amount of effort and energy to come from behind by double digit deficits or close to it. In order to be in good shape fatigue wise down the stretch, having a lead or being within a possession or two is so important to winning. It also affords a bad break or two that could otherwise be game clinchers if they aren’t within striking distance.

Rutgers trailed by 10 points with 10:29 to play at Iowa and was within one possession within a minute to play. They were behind 16 points to Michigan midway through the second half at Madison Square Garden and cut the lead to 2 with 16 seconds to play. Maryland led Rutgers by 8 points in both halves, but it was a one possession game most of the final minute of the game. At Ohio State, RU trailed by 18 points with 10:54 to play before storming back and cutting the lead to 3 with 27 seconds remaining. Wisconsin was leading Rutgers by 16 points with 11:27 to play before it was down to 5 points with under 2 minutes remaining. They fell just short in all five games.

In order to avoid a similar fate against Penn State, Rutgers needs to avoid giving up big runs and keeping the score close from the outset. They can’t afford to start the game 1 of 15 from the field like they did in the first meeting at the RAC. Good starts to both halves is essential to taking control of the game.

Foul Trouble & Free Throw margin

Penn State struggled with foul trouble in the first meeting and it hindered them particularly in the second half. Four starters finished the game with four fouls apiece and Rutgers took advantage from the foul line, making 22 of 29 attempts for 75.9%. Penn State was great from the charity stripe, shooting 11 of 13 in the game, but were called for 10 more fouls than RU.

We KNOW that isn’t happening again in Happy Valley, but Rutgers needs to avoid a true reversal of those stats or they’re going to have a very difficult time winning this game. Aggressive defense without fouling while driving STRONG to the rim is very important. The Scarlet Knights need to attack a bit more assertively with their bodies in order to draw contact that warrants a foul call. I think part of their issues offensively have been not going as strong as they need to at the rim at times, thus taking more difficult shots that miss while also failing to get many calls in traffic. Penn State sends opponents to the foul line at a higher rate than any other team in Big Ten play at 35.7% while Rutgers is only slightly better at 31.6% at 11th in the league. Penn State is shooting 69.7% from the line in Big Ten play at 10th and Rutgers is only 13th at 65.8%. Whichever team gets to the line and converts more will have a upper hand in the final outcome.

Don’t Get Sloppy with the basketball

Rutgers can’t afford to fall into a bad stretch of turning over the basketball. Penn State has the best defensive steal rate and third best defensive turnover rate in Big Ten play. The first time these teams played, RU committed 7 turnovers in the first 7 minutes of the game. They only committed 4 the rest of the game, which was in part why they won, but a stretch like that can’t happen on Wednesday at any point of the contest.

Jacob Young, who scored 13 points in the first meeting, and Paul Mulcahy, who dished out 5 assists in that game, are crucial to the Scarlet Knights creating scoring chances and limiting turnovers. Geo Baker and Caleb McConnell are important too with ball handling, but I also think Baker is playing really well off the ball right now. If those three other guards can be strong with the basketball and create for themselves and their teammates off the dribble, the Rutgers offense will have a big day.

All Hands on Deck

A major reason that Rutgers beat Penn State in the first meeting without Geo Baker was because everyone that did play contributed positively. An all hands on deck approach has been key to the overall success of the team under head coach Steve Pikiell. Recently, production from McConnell, Montez Mathis, Myles Johnson and Jacob Young has really dipped at times, particularly scoring wise. RU needs 4-5 players to score in double digits to win tonight and also help carry the load that Baker, Ron Harper Jr, and Akwasi Yeboah have carried for an extended period of time. If everyone is contributing in certain ways overall, it will only help make them believe as a team they can win. Being locked in defensively and on the boards can sometimes trigger certain players to play more free on the offensive end. McConnell is at his best when doing the little things well and making winning plays, whether that’s scoring or otherwise. Mathis and Young need to lockdown defensively and look to run in transition where they excel. Johnson at a minimum needs to step up against Watkins, while the guards need to play with poise and confidence.

Which Star will shine brighter

One reason for optimism is the Geo Baker did not play in the first meeting versus Penn State. Baker has played very well the past five games, averaging 16.4 points on 47% shooting, including 4.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Rutgers needs his “A” game in this one to win on the road on Wednesday. One thing that doesn’t show up in the box score is the value of his leadership. I think it’s likely Baker will remind his teammates that they won at Penn State last season close to a couple dozen times throughout Wednesday. His ability to get the team to believe they can win on the road is paramount in getting them over the hump.

On the flip side, All-Big Ten player Lamar Stevens was held to just 12 points on 10 shots and he committed 4 fouls. While Penn State would get a significant boost if Jones does suit up, Stevens can’t have a big day either way. Getting him as far from the rim with the ball the better positioned they will be in defending him. Being physical with him is important too while also attacking Stevens when he is on defense in order to get him in foul trouble once again. While Rutgers can’t allow a role player to have a big scoring night, slowing down Stevens and making him work as hard as possible on both ends of the floor is a must.

Appropriate Music Selection

For the twenty-ninth game of the season, I’m featuring “Where is my mind” by the Pixies. Love this song and it applies to the mindset of both the team and some fans ahead of this game.

Rutgers has to get over whatever mental hurdles they encounter on the road and finish this game out. They’ve been far more competitive this season away from the RAC than they’ve ever been in Big Ten play. Steve Pikiell is 2-1 at Penn State and most of this team was on the court at the Bryce Jordan Center last season. Hopefully, knowing they’ve done it there before can push them over the edge tonight into the win column.

As for some fans that are jumping to conclusions on how this season will end or the long term ceiling for the program, take a breath and try to have some perspective. This is a huge game with NCAA Tournament ramifications and that’s something to enjoy, as it’s something not experienced on the banks in many years. Rutgers has struggled of late, but it has come against the most difficult schedule in the country per ESPN BPI rankings. Writing this team off would be a mistake. They don’t back down from any opponent and it’s only a matter of time that they break and show once again why they’ve made so much progress this season.