Golden Gophers 13-5 (1-4) vs. Penn State 9-9 (1-4)
3:00 PM CST at Bryce Jordan Center in University Park, PA
TV: Big Ten Network Radio: 1500 AM
Momentum, if it even exists, is extremely fleeting. It can be neither created nor destroyed. It just happens, and then leaves as quickly as it appeared. A bad break combined with a bad bounce can turn around a game. A fifteen footer from a bad shooter can save a season. If momentum exists, the Golden Gophers have it after their still stunning win in Indiana, the best road win in the hundred plus year history of Gopher basketball. Now the young Gophers must use it before it is gone.
They play 18 Big Ten basketball games for a reason. Four games is too short of a time frame to judge a team. By game number 12, the haves and have-nots have revealed themselves. If the Gophers can continue to play as well as they did in Indiana, by game 12, they could be among the haves. Five of the next six games are winnable, and in seven games, the Wisconsin Badgers come to town, in what could be a showdown to move to the upper half of the Big Ten standings. I am not writing about what is still to come to minimize Sunday afternoon’s game against Penn State, but to emphasize the importance of that game. If the Gophers can beat the Nittany Lions, they will be well on their way to turning around the season. If they lose, they’ll arguably be in worse position than they were before the Indiana game. When you dig yourself into a hole, it takes more than one step to get out.
There is bound to be a bit of a let down when the Gophers take the court in Happy Valley. Playing in a three-quarters empty NBA style arena doesn’t get the blood pumping like a packed to the rafters Assembly Hall, and the Gophers will need to find a way to create energy and motivation for themselves. Penn State is probably the worst team in the Big Ten, but they are in the Big Ten, where nothing is as it seems, and not only can anyone beat everyone else, they already have. Purdue ran headlong into the nonsense of Big Ten basketball in Happy Valley, and left on the wrong end of a 20 point bludgeoning. That win was clearly an aberration, at least compared to the rest of Penn State’s season. They’ve already lost games on their home court to Lafayette and Mississippi and were blown out of the water at Nebraska. None of that matters, at least not much, in the Big Ten.
Talor Battle, proving that there is some fairness in the world, helped Penn State make the NCAA tournament in his senior season. Battle and his teammates are long gone, leaving Tim Frazier to carry the weight, and only eight players in all of college basketball carry more weight than that senior point guard. When he is on the court, 32% of Penn State’s possessions end with the ball in his hands, and he takes 28% of the shots. He has made more two-pointers than any of his teammates have attempted. He isn’t quite a one-man team, though he is the most important player on the court for either team. He leads the team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, and turnovers. Frazier isn’t a great three-point shooter unless he is wide-open, so the Gophers should focus on staying in front of him and keeping him out of the lane. If he does get into the lane, the Gophers would be well-advised to cover Penn State’s trio of spot up shooters, led by Billy Oliver. He is a goofy looking white kid, which means he can shoot the three. He leads the team at 36%, but has big game potential as Purdue found out when he made 7-11 three point attempts. Jermaine Marshall loves to shoot, regardless of how bad his shooting is, and at 38% from the field it is bad. He can be streaky, and solid defense early on could take him out of the game. Sasa Borovnjak is their only real size at 6’9” and he plays smaller than that. Cammeron Woodyard is a better outside shooter than he is on the inside, and can also be streaky.
Penn State fits the statistical profile of a team with one good player and lot of not very good players. Both their two point and three-point shooting are squarely in the bottom third of all of Division I basketball, and easily the worst in the Big Ten. They make only 31% of their three-point attempts and 45% of their two point attempts, placing them between Nicholl’s state and Portland in the national shooting standings. They are a more than adequate offensive rebounding team, which is their only offensive saving grace. They don’t get to the free-throw line, and can’t make free-throws when they do.
Penn State’s defense is better than their offense, by default alone. Their perimeter defense is just as porous as the Gophers, and their interior defense is worse. Unlike the Gophers who can are able to erase mistakes with capable shot blockers, the Nittany Lions rank 155th in blocking shots. The Gophers will find success attacking the rim against Penn State, which will also leave open shots on the outside. It will be tempting to not attack the basket since the Nittany Lions allow the second most three-point attempts in the country, but that is not the Gophers game.
There are no must wins in the Big Ten this season. Declaring a game a must win presupposes that there is logic and sanity in the conference this season, and we know that there isn’t. It is important though. It begins the most important stretch of the season.