The Northwestern (16-11, 6-9) basketball team is in desperate need of a win after a home overtime loss to Michigan on Tuesday put their NCAA Tournament chances on thin ice. The Purple Cats come to visit our Lions (12-16, 4-11) this Saturday at 9 PM in an attempt to get their season back on track. The game will be televised nationally on ESPNU.
The bad signs for Northwestern are that it is only 1-6 in Big Ten road games this season, with the one win coming at free falling Illinois. Even more alarming is the 2-15 all-time mark that the Purple Cats sport in the Bryce Jordan Center. Somehow, despite a lot of really bad Penn State teams (and yeah, I know Northwestern hasn’t been terrific either), Northwestern hasn’t won a road game at Penn State since 2002. More recently than that, Bill Carmody’s team has won at more intimidating venues such as Purdue’s Mackey Arena, Michigan State’s Breslin Center, Michgan’s Crisler Center and both Assembly Halls. Not the Jordan Center though. Go figure.
This time, though, Northwestern is well equipped to get the job done. They come in with the Big Ten’s leading scorer, John Shurna, who scores 20.4 points per game while allowing guys like forward Drew Crawford (16.2 ppg) and freshman guard Dave Sobolewski (9.3 ppg and 3.7 assists per game) to get in on the action as well. In Penn State’s visit to Evanston back on New Year’s Day, Shurna was held to 17 points, but Sobolewski had 20 and Crawford had 21 as the Cats shot past the Lions with 43% three-point shooting and won 68-56.
In his team’s recent loss to Michigan, Shurna broke Billy McKinney’s 35 year-old Northwestern scoring record of 1,900 points. Now with 1,902 points for his career, it will be fun to see if the big goof can get to 2,000 before Northwestern is finished. A run in the Big Ten tournament certainly wouldn’t hurt the chances for Shurna and the whole Purple Cat gang.
Back on this game, though. Northwestern’s weakness has been mainly defense and rebounding for the whole season. The Purple Cats can certainly put the ball in the hoop. They lead the Big Ten in effective FG% with 53.7% in conference play, which is mostly because of their 38.5% three-point shooting, which is second in the conference. Individually, Shurna shoots 43% from beyond the arc, with Crawford at 40% and Sobolewski at 38%. That’s pretty dangerous.
The good news for old State is that Northwestern is at the bottom of the league in defensive rebounding percentage and next-to-last in offensive rebounding percentage. Rebounding is one of the only things Penn State does well, so this should be a major point of emphasis. In the January 1 game, Penn State crushed Northwestern on the glass by grabbing 15 offensive rebounds to just 3 for the Cats. Of course, all that did was allow Penn State to only lose by 12 despite getting out-shot by 21% on field goals. Still, it shows that if Penn State can get some shots in the bucket — and they have shown the ability to do this in home games — they have a good chance at ruining Northwestern’s season.
Particularly effective in only home games has been Camm Woodyard, who is actually 11 of 25 from three-point range in his last five home games. It’s kind of surprising because he has shown the ability to completely vanish in road games, but Penn State’s underwhelming senior can be a weapon at times.
Jon Graham is another guy who can take advantage of playing versus Northwestern at home. He’s coming off his first career 10-rebound game and now goes against one of the worst rebounding teams in the country. Graham should be licking his chops and will hopefully have another big day on the glass on Saturday.
Northwestern is a sort of bipolar team. They are really great at shooting. They also don’t turn the ball over. Northwestern’s 1.49 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks second nationally. However, opponents can shoot on the Purple Cats and kill them on the boards. If Penn State can stay disciplined in their three-point defense and drop in a few treys themselves, it has a good chance at victory. Remember, Penn State does not need to out-shoot Northwestern as long as the Lions can put back some of their own misses.
One more thing: Forward Davide Curletti and guard Reggie Hearn are two guys who did not see much playing time the first time Penn State played Northwestern this season. They are also two guys who combined for 7 offensive rebounds versus Michigan. Look for both of them to play much bigger roles versus PSU this time around.
Let’s go State.