Not long ago, in the late oughts for instance, a Big Ten basketball game between the Golden Gophers and Penn State Nittany Lions had great potential to be a dreadful affair. Sure, there could be some excitement, like when Lawrence Westbrook ripped the soul out of all 37 fans in attendance in Happy Valley.
That only masked the cold, harsh, reality of some really bad offensive basketball. The Gophers could put up points on occasion, but that was due to forcing turnovers and lots of offensive rebounding, not because of a functioning offense. Penn State didn’t benefit from those sorts of smoke and mirrors, or their excruciatingly slow pace of play. During the last 10 years, Penn State basketball was better known for their occasionally inability to crack 40 points than their string of very good but unsupported star players (the Taylor Battles of the world). Now, like the Gophers, Penn State has a coach that likes to score and more than one adequate offensive player. For now, defense will decide games between Minnesota and Penn State.
It might seem odd to claim that defense will decide a game between two good offensive teams. However, when two good offensive teams play each other, their strengths tend to cancel each other out. We know that the Hollinses will score a lot of points, and so will Tim Frazier and DJ Newbill (as long as he avoids smacking anyone in the head). What we don’t know is which team will grab the key steal, or force a mistake with the shot clock winding down. Whomever achieves the unexpected, and actually demonstrates competent defense, will have a big advantage.
Penn State and Minnesota have both been betrayed by their defenses at key times this season, and both happened with comfortable second half leads. The Gophers let Purdue score on 18 of their final 23 possessions on Sunday, but those five stops were just enough to hold off the hard charging Boilermakers. Back in December against Princeton, Penn State came up one stop short, letting the Tigers claw all the way back from a 20 point second half deficit in a game Penn State eventually lost in overtime. In that game, Penn State could only muster 3 stops in the final 8:30 of the game. If the Gophers had come up with one fewer stop, and if Penn State had found one more stop, it might be the Gophers instead of Penn State trying to get back to the NCAA tournament bubble.
The most concerning thing for Penn State is that the loss to Princeton was not their only blown lead of the season. Against Bucknell they blew a 5 point halftime lead and lost by 10. Against Mississippi they led by 5 with 11:28 left in the game before losing by 3. They blew another 5 point second half lead in a 9 point loss to Pitt. A 7 point half time lead against Michigan State was no match for PSU’s ability to blow leads, resulting in a 16 point loss. The only Nittany Lion loss that didn’t seem comfortably in hand at some point was their most recent 20 point loss to Illinois, but blowouts are rarely suspenseful.
Penn State’s defense struggles in three key areas that are needed to prevent comebacks. They rank 328th in turnovers, and it is certainly hard to score if a team can’t keep the ball. They also rank 223rd in defending three-pointers, which helps to quicken the pace of comebacks. Finally, they rank 237th in keeping teams from the foul line, letting their opponents score plenty of points with the clock stopped.
The Nittany Lions do have some offensive firepower, which is the main reason they have been able to build leads even if they eventually lose them. They have the 66th best offense in the country, which is a good bit worse than Minnesota’s 25th ranked offense, but a far cry from last season’s 170th ranked offense. Everything runs through Tim Frazier, who is responsible for 24% of shot attempts when he is on the court and he rarely leaves the court. He’s also responsible for assists on 39.1% of made baskets when he is on the court. When Penn State scores, it is either off a pass from Frazier or the points are scored by Frazier. When Frazier isn’t scoring, he is passing to DJ Newbill, his back court mate who leads the team in scoring. The front court is much more comfortable acting like big guards. Both Donovon Jack and Brandon Taylor are comfortable stepping out to the three-point line. Ross Travis is more of a traditional power forward, but shoots fairly (too) often from the three-point line. Penn State’s greatest strength is in the back court, and that is reflected statistically. They are an above average shooting team behind the three-point line and excellent at the free-throw line. With two players who have point guard experience in Newbill and Frazier, it isn’t surprising that they commit the 15th fewest turnovers in the country.
While Penn State can make a lot of shots, they don’t get many second chance points. The Nittany Lions rank 288th in offensive rebounding. Minnesota’s defense isn’t particularly good. Purdue, despite scoring 1.25 points per possession against the Gophers, had a mediocre shooting game. It just so happens that the Gophers committed turnovers nearly 21% of possessions and Purdue rebounded half of their own misses. That earned the Boilermaker 18 more field goal attempts than the Gophers, and they cashed in on those extra opportunities.
The back courts will cancel themselves out, as will the offenses. However, Penn State’s poor offensive rebounding, and Minnesota’s just enough defense, assuming they don’t give the Nittany Lions extra opportunities, should help the Gophers to escape with a win. However, as all saw when a heavily favored Gophers team needed a miracle shot from Lawrence Westbrook to beat a Penn State team without a conference win, nothing is easy on the road in the Big Ten, especially for teams who struggle to hold big leads.