Golden Gophers vs. Penn State Nittany Lions
6:00 pm (CST) at Bryce Jordan Center (University Park, PA)
We have now entered the every game counts portion of the season. With five games left, the Gophers must win three of their remaining games to be reasonably certain that they can make the NCAA tournament. Thursday’s game at Penn State is winnable, but as we have seen in both the winnable home game against Illinois and winnable road game at Iowa, a winnable game in no way guarantees a win, and predicting how the Gophers, with their current roster, will react to each situation has gotten more than a little pointless.
Three of Minnesota’s remaining games are at home, and two are on the road. Unfortunately, one of those home games is against the Michigan State Spartans, who despite their recent struggles, are more than capable of putting together a good 40 minutes of basketball. One of those final three wins is going to have to come on the road. Luckily, Penn State, Northwestern, and Michigan, the three remaining teams on the slate that are not underachieving national powers, all have major weaknesses that the Gophers can exploit with their current roster. They are small.
Penn State, at least since the days of John Amaeichi and Calvin Booth, has struggled to field a quality front court. When they have interior players that are actually the size of Division I big men, they tend not to be skilled. When they have quality big men, they tend to be centers trapped in the body of shooting guards. Andrew Jones is Penn State’s only player taller than 6’8”, but he isn’t particularly strong with the ball or scary on either end of the court. Other than him, there is your typical plethora of 6’5”- 6’8” guys that aren’t comfortable posting up playing interior defense.
What Penn State does have is two exceptional players. Talor Battle is well known for his scoring exploits, having recently joined the 2,000 point club. There isn’t really anything he can’t do, but Penn State does struggle when he tries to do everything. For most of his career, Battle has had trouble trusting his teammates, and arguably shouldn’t have trusted his teammates for most of his career. However, he is finally getting the help he deserves. Jeff Brooks has had one of the more surprising senior year explosions in recent Big Ten history. He has nearly doubled his scoring and rebounding since last season. He has upped his field goal percentage by 7 and his free throw shooting percentage and three point field goal percentage by 13. In just one season, he has gone from an afterthought to key cog in the Nittany Lion offense.
Two players, however, is not enough to win in the Big Ten, and finding that third scorer has been a struggle. David Jackson is Penn State’s third leading scorer with 10.4 points per game, but disappears at the most inopportune times. During a recent three game losing streak he didn’t reach double figures. He hasn’t scored 10 points or more in consecutive games since losses to Ohio State and Purdue in mid-January. Their leading scorer after the Big Two and Moderately Substantial One, is the aforementioned Andrew Jones, who barely scores 6 points per game.
As you might have guessed by now, scoring has been something of a chore for Penn State. In conference play, they rank 5th with only 1.05 points per possession, about the same as the Gophers. They do a decent job of offensive rebounding, a big departure from last season when they were awful, and can get to the free-throw line with some regularity. They have the best two point shooting percentage in the Big Ten, thanks mostly to Brooks and Battle taking the ball hard to the basket. The Nittany Lions need that driving because they are a ghastly jump shooting team. They rank 10th in the Big Ten in three point shooting, making roughly 32%. Despite this poor shooting, they keep firing away, with 37% of their shot attempts coming from the outside.
Much has been made of Minnesota’s poor three point defense, but something strange has happened since Minnesota went big and started playing zone defense. They are suddenly one of the better three point defending teams in the conference. The Gophers are holding opponents to 32.3% from outside. Because of Minnesota size under the basket, opponents have continued to attempt, and finally miss tons of three pointers. Zone defenses are always susceptible to open threes, but those open threes almost always come off of dribble penetration, and Minnesota’s length has eliminated those driving lanes. The Nittany Lions only have three players that have any business shooting three pointers. Talor Battle, who shoots 34.7% from the outside, will usually have the ball, and therefore won’t have many opportunities to get lost and open in the gaps of the zone. Jeff Brooks is the team’s best outside shooter, but has only made 18 3’s all season, and the Gophers should be reasonably comfortable if he is chucking up shots from the outside. David Jackson shoots 36% from the outside, but hasn’t made more than three three pointers in a game.
Penn State’s defense features more auspicious statistics. They rank 9th in the Big Ten in forced turnovers and 9th in steals. Minnesota may not have a point guard, but PSU hasn’t shown much ability to pressure ball handlers. This should give Blake Hoffarber the opportunity to play off the ball, and hopefully find some room to shoot. Penn State also struggles to defend the paint, and has allowed conference opponents to shoot 49% inside the three point line. Their lack of height and interior defense should allow Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III plenty of room to operate. The Nittany Lions do excel at defensive rebounds, so those second chance points that the Gophers thrive on will be tough to come by.
A few weeks ago the Gophers figured they would have their slot in the NCAA tournament locked up by now, but the basketball gods that have ravaged every promising basketball season decided to wreak havoc once again. The good news, despite transfers, injuries, and a four game losing streak is that the season is far from over. The Gophers haven’t won back to back road games in the Big Ten since beating Iowa in Iowa City and the Miracle in Madison. A win Thursday night would bring the Gophers back to .500 in conference play, and would give them a very good chance of making the NCAA tournament if they could manage to win two of their final four games. Penn State isn’t a must win game, but it may be more important. If the Gophers can win, it would go a long way towards eliminating any future must win games.