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Game Preview: Rutgers at Penn State

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

Rutgers v Penn State Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images

Rutgers (7-5; 3-5) at Penn State (3-6; 0-5)

How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes

Where: Bryce Jordan Center in State College, PA

Tip-off: Thursday, January 21 at 7:00 p.m. ET

TV: BTN - Dave Revsine and Jess Settles

Radio: Live Listen - Rutgers Sports Properties Radio Network - WCTC 1450 AM/WOR 710 AM/XM 380, Jerry Recco; WRSU 88.7 FM - Raj Shah and Jake Schmied

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers is 39, which is 1 spot better since the 6 point loss to Wisconsin last Friday; Penn State is 48, which is 1 spot worse since a 14 point loss at Illinois on Tuesday.

Efficiency Rankings: Rutgers - Offense 109.7 (57th) Defense 93.0 (35th); Penn State - Offense 111.9 (33rd) Defense 96.6 (76th)

KenPom Prediction: Penn State 72 Rutgers 71; Rutgers is given a 45% chance to win.

OTB Guide to KenPom

Vegas Line: Rutgers -1

Series History: Penn State leads the all-time series 42-34. Both teams won at home last season, with PSU securing a 1 point victory in the last meeting on February 26, 2020.

Penn State SB Nation Site: Black Shoe Diaries

Key Contributors

Penn State - 6’3” junior Myreon Jones (15.9 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.6 steals, 40.4% 3-pt FG); 6’4” Izaiah Brockington (13.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.0 steal, 40.9% 3-pt FG); 6’6” sophomore Seth Lundy (12.0 points, 3.7 rebounds, 34.1% 3-pt FG); 6’0” junior Sam Sessoms (10.2 points, 2.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.3 rebounds, 38.5% 3-pt FG); 6’4” junior Myles Dread (7.6 points, 2.4 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 36.7% 3-pt FG); 6’9” senior John Harrar (7.2 points, 7.7 rebounds, 57.1% FG); 6’1” senior Jamari Wheeler (4.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.8 steals); 6’8” senior Trent Buttrick (2.6 points, 3.9 rebounds)

Rutgers - 6’6” junior Ron Harper Jr. (18.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 42.3% 3-pt FG); 6’2” senior Jacob Young (15.8 points, 4.4 assists, 2.3 steals, 2.2 rebounds, 38.7% 3-pt FG); 6’4” junior Montez Mathis (12.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 40.5% 3-pt FG); 6’4” Geo Baker (8.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.0 steal); 6’10” redshirt junior Myles Johnson (7.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 1.3 steals, 1.0 assist, 59.1% FG); 6’6” sophomore Paul Mulcahy (6.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists); 6’7” junior Caleb McConnell (5.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.0 steal - 4 games) 6’11” Cliff Omoruyi (5.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 67.7% FG);

Injury Updates

None

About Penn State

The Nittany Lions have had a tumultuous few months. Longtime head coach Pat Chambers resigned in October due to an internal investigation and the program was just shut down for almost three weeks due to positive results within the PSU program. They just resumed practice last week and played its first game of 2021 on Sunday. Tonight will mark its third game in five days.

Penn State is 0-5 in the league and interim head coach Jim Ferry was just fined $10,000 and publicly reprimanded by the Big Ten due to a violation of sportsmanship rules due to postgame comments after Sunday’s loss to Purdue. On Tuesday, they lost by 14 at Illinois. They do own quality wins over Virginia Tech (KenPom no. 35) and VCU (KenPom no. 68), but they last won against the Hokies on December 8.

PSU is averaging 76.2 points per game and are shooting 41.9% from the floor, 35.8% from three-point range and 68.6% from the foul line. They have the 34th lowest turnover rate and 39th best offensive rebounding rate nationally.

Defensively, the Nittany Lions are holding opponents to 29.3% from three-point range, which is 40th best nationally, as well as the 38th best defensive steal rate nationally.

In Big Ten play, PSU is 11th in offensive efficiency and 12th in defensive efficiency. They have the best offensive rebounding rate, but are last in two-point field goal percentage and free throw rate (getting to the foul line). Defensively, they have the best turnover rate and opponent three-point field goal percentage in conference play but last in two-point field goal percentage defense and opponent free throw rate. That’s a terrible combination to be last in both of those categories on both ends of the floor.

Steve Pikiell Pregame Quotes

On Losing Streak

“We got 12 left, and we’re playing the best league in the country. Sometimes you’re on winning streaks and sometimes you’re on losing streaks and obviously we’re on a losing streak. You learn a lot about your team. We went through it last year at this time. Nobody remembers we had stretches like this. We’ll regain it. That’s what I do. I took this job a long time ago. Obstacles, I love when people doubt (us). It’s great. We are going to keep grinding, we are going to defend better, rebound better and our guys are going to play better and the results will show. We will keep moving forward. We have a lot of the season still left. We are at the halfway mark and we can do some really good things . I take a lot of pride in that our teams have always gotten better under me in sixteen years of coaches. We will continue to get better and we can. That’s the good part.”

On Offensive Struggles

“You go through stretches. I mean, we made every shot against Purdue. That’s what happens sometimes, the ups and downs. You grind through with your defense. We practice. Our guys in the gym a ton. Our percentages are way up from last year. We talk a lot about shot selection. We talked a lot this week about getting to the free-throw line and getting some easy ones. When you’re not making shots you got to figure out another way to generate some points. Our free throw percentage hasn’t helped us either, but we can narrow the field here a little bit if we get to the line and make them. We’ve missed a ton of one-and-ones too so we don’t even get the back end of that. I’m confident. We get good looks. I’m confident Ron (Harper Jr.), Caleb (McConnell), or Geo (Baker) will make (3-pointers & shots). Montez (Mathis) has been making them. If we can get to the foul line more, I think that’ll help our offense.”

On containing PSU from three

“It puts a lot of pressure on your defense. They got multiple guys (shooters) and they’re fearless. It poses a problem rebounding-wise because those aren’t rebounds that wrap around the basket. Those rebounds can go anywhere. They’re really good and they’re always in games, no matter what the score is because of their ability to make threes.”

Needing to win on the road

“Last year we won two road games. Now we have a chance to do some stuff on the road, but every team in this league is good. You got to play well every night no matter who you’re playing. I think our guys are confident. I really do, and I think we’re ready to take on the challenge of the second half of the season. We’re 7-5 in the first half. I know everyone wants to be undefeated. The lessons we’ve learned we’ll take into the second half. I take a lot of pride in that. Our teams have always gotten better and we will continue to get better. Some teams have peaked, but we can get better as long as we stay COVID free. That’s a big part. Guys are healthy and we went through a lot of obstacles. We’ll see if we can end the season the right way.”

On Ron Harper Jr. struggling

“Ron, by far, had his best practice on Sunday on the season. When you look at Ron, I know everyone is looking at his numbers from the last couple. His numbers are off the charts for the season. If you want to go through the season, you are going to have stretches where the ball doesn’t go in the way you want it to. He needs to get to the foul line more. I think that’s important. But he’s having a really good season. He is the No. 1 guy on the scouting report now too. He’s got to understand that. But I’m really confident and he had his best practice the other day. I’m excited with how he’s responded.”

On having more time off between games

“It was the first game the other day where everyone was healthy. [Trainer] Rich [Campbell] has been busy as could be. He doubled up on his treatments on Cliff and all the guys, so we’ve been able to give him some days off. We watched much more film. Their days get a little crazy now with school added to their plate. We’ve put in some new stuff. I think it will pay off down the other end. Gonna be well prepared for this game. We were really well prepared for Wisconsin even though we came up a little bit short in that game. I thought our game plan was spot on. We’re doing more of the same with them now. We just got to juggle a little bit more schoolwork in there, so we’ll have to juggle our practice schedule a little bit.”

On Cliff Omoruyi’s health

“He was sore (after Wisconsin), but he’s getting better and better. He’s a big part of this thing moving forward here. Our rebound numbers have changed drastically. His size, even when he doesn’t get the rebound he’s engaging other guys so they can’t get the rebounds. He had almost 20 days where he didn’t do a lot. You got to get back into that game shape and gain that physicality and stuff and he’s moving in that direction. Real pleased and excited about having him back full time.”

On Jaden Jones now practicing with the team

“I’m excited. He has practiced a couple times. His first day of classes is today. He lifted for the first time the other day. He’s a great kid from a great family, but we have 21 out of bounds plays that he needs to learn in the next five minutes. Like any freshman, he’s sore. He’s gonna be a really good player. He’s trying to figure out our drills. He’s trying to figure out our offense kind of in the middle of the season. It’s kind of a hard time to just jump in and know what you’re kind of doing. He’s in the back of the line learning everything. He’s gonna be a very good player for us. Excited about having him here, and stealing some time with him in the weight room and on the court and all those kinds of things.”

Keys To Victory

Defend the arc

Penn State is taking 27 attempts a game from three-point range and have multiple guys who can make them, so awareness of where shooters are at all times is a must. PSU plays the third fastest pace in league play and will look to make things a bit helter skelter, which generates open looks. Rutgers needs to stay locked in defensively and not allow any easy baskets. Contesting every shot is key inside the arc as well, as the Nittany Lions shoot poorly from two-point range. RU has the size and length to alter shots and make them uncomfortable.

Attack the Rim

As noted above, Penn State is allowing opponents the best shooting percentage inside the arc in Big Ten play, as well as opponents are getting to the foul line against them more than any other team. As Pikiell stated, a key to snapping out of an offensive slump is getting to the line, even despite Rutgers not shooting a high percentage. That makes it even more important to get to the line, as they need more attempts to keep up with opponents. Getting the right guys there is important too, which means Caleb McConnell, Jacob Young and Geo Baker need to draw contact on penetration.

During the four game losing streak, opponents have taken 45 more attempts and made 52 more than the Scarlet Knights, despite Rutgers committing just 19 more fouls. Part of that is being more disciplined in not committing unnecessary fouls, but the other part is when RU draws fouls, it’s not on contact while shooting. They need to be more aggressive attacking the rim offensively and go strong, not altering their shots to avoid contact. The other part is converting shots near the rim, as Rutgers has only been around 50% on layups in recent games. They need to take advantage of good looks they get tonight from within ten feet.

Dominate the glass

Penn State has the top offensive rebounding rate in Big Ten play and Rutgers is allowing opponents the second best offensive rebounding rate in league action. This could spell trouble in tonight’s game, but having Cliff Omoruyi available is huge. They were significantly better on the boards against Wisconsin with him back in the lineup. He and Myles Johnson need to be rebounding machines tonight, but the rest of the team has an opportunity to dominate as well if they crash the boards against the undersized Nittany Lions. Limit second chance scoring opportunities, especially on kick outs beyond the arc, and they will have a hard time producing enough points to win.

Play under control

Rutgers has been outstanding in taking care of the basketball, as they have the 11th lowest turnover rate nationally and lowest in Big Ten play. That needs to show up tonight, as Penn State will try and speed them up to force mistakes. Opponents are turning it over against them at the highest rate in league action, so limiting turnovers, thus preventing PSU from generating easy baskets is a must. While RU should look for transition opportunities as much as possible, they need to play under control as well. Jacob Young has been the best offensive player for Rutgers during this losing streak by a wide margin, but this is a game I’d like to see Geo Baker and Paul Mulcahy assert themselves more with handling the basketball. There has been too much dribble first action in the halfcourt offense overall during this losing streak and Rutgers needs to get back to sharing the basketball more like they were at the start of the season. If they force Penn State to work defensively, they will find open looks as the game progresses.

Seize the moment

This game is as close to a must win as a mid-January game can be. Rutgers has won twice at Penn State in the past four trips and lost on a last second shot last season. They should have the confidence to win on the road in Happy Valley and I think it might help to be away from the RAC tonight. They need to find themselves and hopefully the longer breaks between games has helped them. PSU is playing it’s third game in five days, so they could have tired legs tonight. Relentless defensive pressure, including some full court action, as well as being aggressive on the offensive end is a must. They can’t be passive like they have been when shots don’t fall. They are the better team, but they have to prove it tonight.

Appropriate Music Selection

For the thirteenth game of the season, I selected “Guess Again” by Jeff Tweedy. I love his new solo album, Love is the King, and this is one of the better tracks from it. These lyrics seemed appropriate:

“Riding with the wind blowing in my hair. And the sun shining down everywhere. And if you think that’s the best thing. That I can do. Guess again, my love. Guess again, my love. It’s for you.”

“Oh, trouble, I can sing it the same. Or just about the same. As any other song you can name. And if you think that that’s the main thing. Pulling me through. Guess again, my love. It’s you.”

While this is obviously a love song, I compare these lyrics to the ups and downs within this season so far. It’s for you is achieving the ultimate goals for this season, which are still attainable. Keep in mind that four of the five losses this season have come against teams ranked in the top 16 of KenPom. The other was against Michigan State. It’s a season of a big high and big low so far, but they certainly aren’t as bad as they’ve been of late.

Tonight is an opportunity to get back on track and the hardest victory in a win streak is the first one. Rutgers needs to show its resolve and come out with urgency and focus against Penn State. A good start will boost their confidence, but they also have to be mentally tough if they struggle offensively as well. They are good enough to win a defensive battle if necessary. Style points don’t matter tonight, getting a victory is all that does. If they stick to the game plan, I think they’ll leave Happy Valley in a much better mood than its opponent.