On the surface, the Big Ten basketball game to be played on Sunday at 4:00 PM between Minnesota and Penn State looks pretty easy to figure out. Minnesota has a 1-4 Big Ten record, but they still have a chance to make some noise. The Gophers lost outstanding forward Trevor Mbakwe in during the non-conference schedule, then suffered through three straight excruciatingly close losses to open the Big Ten slate while they learned to play without the big guy.
However, the Gophers finally go the monkey off of their back on Thursday with a potential season-changing win versus the Hoosiers at Bloomington. With every game now crucial to Minnesota earning an NCAA Tournament bid, there’s no way they fall asleep at Penn State, right?
Well, regardless of how you feel about “trap games” and the like, Penn State has a signature win of their own as well as a bizarre home court advantage that doesn’t seem to care how empty the Bryce Jordan Center is. The big win against Purdue happened two Thursday ago when students were still on break, yet the Lions played like they had an arena full of boisterous fans at their backs.
The good news, says Tony Mancuso of GoPSUSports.com, is that PSU has played well at home this season even when school is in session.
The Nittany Lions have played well on their home floor throughout the 2011-’12 season. Penn State is 7-3 in the BJC. The three home losses were decided by a combined 12 points, and the Lions were in a position to win all three games.
Unfortunately, one of those home losses was to horrible Lafayette (Kenpom #260), but the point is that Penn State hasn’t been blown out on their own floor despite playing Purdue and Indiana in their first two conference home games. Not bad.
There’s also the fact that the last four times Penn State has played Minnesota in the BJC, the game has been decided by five points or less. Sure, Tim Frazier is the only current Penn State player who even contributed for the past two seasons, but Tubby Smith and Ralph Samspon III of Minnesota were around for a good deal of those nail biters.
The Gophers are stocked with a fair amount of talent, but since Mbakwe went down, no one player has stepped up to carry the load. Rodney Williams leads the team in scoring (10.4 points per game) and rebounding (5.9 per game) and is a spectacular athlete, but he’s not great at creating his own shot. Ralph Sampson III sometimes flashes talent that makes you wonder why he isn’t a star. The 6’11” senior center has a decent post game and is a great shot blocker, but he has a knack for disappearing and only average 8.5 points per game. In Big Ten play, Sampson lit Illinois for 22 points and 9 rebounds (albeit in a double OT loss), but hasn’t done much since. Still, Sasa Borovnjak, Billy Oliver and Jon Graham will have their hands full with him when he’s on the floor.
Julian Welch is the guy to watch out for from beyond the arc. He’s shooting 40% from out there this season on 47 attempts. Austin Hollins also likes to launch from long range. The sophomore guard averages just 8.6 points per game but broke out at Indiana for 18 points on 7 of 10 shooting. Fellow sophomore and name of the year candidate Maverick Ahanmisi has been handling most of the point guard duties for Tubby’s Gophers. He’s not a big time scoring threat, but I had to throw him in there because his first name is Maverick.
For Penn State to win they’ll need Jermaine Marshall to bounce back from his awful game at Nebraska to give Frazier some scoring support. In general, the Lions should get less shy about feeding Graham and Borovnjak in the post, but in this game, Sampson might make that a bad idea.
On defense, PSU is athletic enough on the perimeter to get out on Minnesota’s shooters, but if they collapse too hard on Sampson, he’s shown he’s very good at passing from the post position. Too many defenders shouldn’t be committed to Sampson unless he proves that he actually wants to do something on offense. Other than that, it’s hard to tell what to focus on, because Minnesota doesn’t have that one great player. Look for Ross Travis to get some run if Pat Chambers finds Rodney Williams to be too tough for anyone else to defend.
Penn State has sure been inconsistent this season, but this game should be a close one at home. If it gets ugly, you can always switch over to Indiana’s epic rematch (already?) with Ohio State, which starts just 30 minutes later. Other Big Ten action this weekend includes Nebraska at Wisconsin in another way-too-soon rematch as well as Michigan State at Northwestern and Michigan at Iowa.