Preview: Michigan State vs Penn State

Penn State is often a struggle for the Spartans at home - Justin K. Aller
Your Michigan State Spartans vs. the Penn State Nittany Lions
Jack Breslin Student Events Center - East Lansing, Mich.
Feb. 6, 2014, 9 p.m.

TV: ESPN2
Online streaming: WatchESPN.com

MSU begins both halves of the conference schedule with Penn State, having won the opener on New Year's Eve at the Bryce Jordan Center 79-63. PSU comes into this game with a 12-10 record, 3-6 in conference, but they're on a major roll, having won their last three, including an electrifying OT win over Ohio State in Columbus.

This is a potentially dangerous game for MSU, still depleted by injury and coming off one of their worst outings of the season at Madison Square Garden vs Georgetown. Penn St. is hot and has a history of giving MSU trouble, even at home. The last two meetings in East Lansing have been blowouts for the Spartans, but PSU beat MSU twice in 2011 and no one will soon forget the famous Talor Battle game of 2009, one of only 3 losses in a conference title season for the Spartans.

Talor Battle may not be walking through that door, but the Nittany Lions still possess a formidable backcourt, led by senior Tim Frazier and junior D.J. Newbill. Projected as one of the top guard tandems in the nation they have both played well on heavy usage. Each uses up more than 25% of the available possessions when they are on the court and when they get help, as they did on New Year's Eve from freshman Brandon Taylor and sophomore Donovon Jack, they can be extremely tough.

Frazier and Newbill are the heart of this team and shutting them down, as the Spartans did in holding them to a combined 8 points in the second half of the previous meeting, is a key to beating PSU. Newbill was expected to play Robin to Frazier's Batman this year but, especially lately, Newbill has been assuming the role of the Dark Knight himself. He made clutch shots against Ohio State to send the game into overtime and to win it and has scored 19, 25, 16, 17 and 17 in their last 5 games. Frazier, meanwhile, leads the B1G in assist rate by a large margin at 36.8% and stands 16th nationally in that category (stats courtesy of kenpom.com).

Here's a look at Newbill abusing Aaron Craft for the game-winner in Columbus:

Another player to watch is Jack, who at 6'9" is the only player in the regular rotation taller than 6'7". His size belies his shooting skill as he is hitting 37.5% of his threes. With Adreian Payne hobbled, if he plays at all, Jack could prove to be a matchup problem for MSU's inside-oriented big men.

Other than Jack and Newbill (37.8%), however, Penn St. has had trouble scoring from beyond the arc, shooting 29% as a team in conference games, 10th in the league. This is unfortunate for them as they have taken a hefty 38% of their shots in league games from deep. When they go cold, as they did in the second half of the first meeting, they can be prone to long scoring droughts. When they're hot, however, as they showed in the first half of that game, they can be tough to handle, as they headed into halftime with a seven point lead on the strength of 7 made threes.

They're somewhat better inside the arc (46.7% in conference) but that does play into MSU's defensive strengths, as the Spartans lead the league in 2-point defense, allowing conference opponents to hit only 40.8% of their shots. The absence of Branden Dawson, still out with a broken hand, and the limited-if-any availability of Payne have some impact here, obviously.

Penn St. normally does a good job hanging on to the ball (16.3% turnover rate in conference) but their small size makes them vulnerable on the glass, as they are below the league average at both ends, including dead last in defensive rebounding percentage. For a detailed statistical breakdown of Penn St., and a look at some of their other personnel, take a look at the recent Fanpost by tprice12.

Defensively Penn St. does an excellent job contesting shots inside the arc and forcing you to beat them from three. Unfortunately for them, opponents have been doing that fairly well, hitting 36% of their threes in conference play. I would expect to see a high number of deep shots from MSU, which has become especially perimeter-oriented lately.

This is a game that MSU should win, and needs to win to keep pace with Michigan at the top of the B1G standings. Ken Pomeroy puts the Spartans' chances at 91%, but with Penn State playing much better lately and MSU's injury woes it could be a bit more of a fight than that.

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