Even though the Spartans enter the 2017 Big Ten tournament as reigning champs, a repeat is far from the minds of fans. Instead, the focus is on securing a bid to a much bigger and more important tournament. At 18-13, it’s possible they could get into the NCAA Tournament without another win, but it’s just as possible they could be left on the outside looking in.
The solution? Win Thursday and remove all doubt from the equation. In order to do that Michigan State will have to take down a team they came up short against the first time, Penn State.
- Record: 15-17 (6-12 Conference)
- Best Win: vs #21 Maryland (RPI: 24), 70-64
- Worst Loss: vs Rutgers (RPI: 171), 68-70
Last Five Games
Big Ten Tournament
- 3/8 — vs Nebraska, W 76-67 (OT)
- 3/5 — @ Iowa, L 79-90
- 2/28 — vs Ohio State, L 70-71
- 2/25 — @ Minnesota, L 71-81
- 2/21 — vs #14 Purdue, L 70-74 (OT)
Before beating Nebraska on Wednesday, Penn State was playing some brutal basketball. They ended their regular season on a five-game losing streak and were taken to overtime by a Huskers team that ended up 12-19 on the year.
The Nittany Lions had a pretty rough season themselves. After back-to-back early Big Ten wins over MSU and Minnesota got their record to 11-7 (3-2 B1G), their stock absolutely plummeted. Pat Chambers’ team has gone 4-10 since, with a pair of W’s over Illinois and a seemingly inexplicable win against Maryland serving as their only other regular season conference wins.
It’s not that this team isn’t talented, they’re just young. Three of their top four scorers are freshman and all three of them scored in double-figures against the Spartans.
Two of the youngsters, in particular, are keys to today’s game.
Nittany Lions To Know
As mentioned above, the amount of talent on the roster is not reflected in this team’s record. The biggest example of that is Big Ten All-Freshman team member, Tony Carr.
The Philadelphia native helped carry the Lions this year, leading the team in scoring (13.2) and assists (4.2) while also grabbing 4.6 rebounds per game. He’s not a particularly great shooter at only 33.7% from three and 39% from the field, but his ability to contribute in so many different ways is what makes him so valuable.
Another freshman that figures to give MSU fits is forward Mike Watkins. Guess why? Yep, he’s tall. At 6’9” with incredibly long arms, Watkins ability to hit the glass (team-high 8.1 rebounds per game) and alter shots (2.6 blocks per game) will pose a major challenge for Nick Ward. He has been playing especially well of late with double-double’s in three of his last five games.
If MSU can’t do a better job of containing these two, it might be an earlier tournament exit than they’d hope for.
How Does MSU Match Up
The last (and only) time these two teams played, Miles Bridges was dressed for only his the second time since returning from injury. His 4-point, 6-rebound, 2-for-8 from the field, 0-for-3 from deep day was one of his worst of the season.
To put it in perspective, Bridges has yet to score fewer than 13 points or go 0-fer from three-point range since then. He has also played fewer minutes or shot worse from the floor only one other time and had fewer rebounds only twice.
He. Was. Bad.
This time, Penn State is not so lucky. The Big Ten freshman of the year hasn’t been lighting the world on fire of late, and is hardly the only key to winning this game, but his presence makes all the difference in the world.
He is in substantially better shape both mentally and physically then he was before and is poised to have a big redemption game.
The biggest advantage for Penn State is the fact that they can play loose. They have nothing to lose. They aren’t going dancing, already won a game in the tournament and now have the chance to play spoiler against a team they already beat this season. However, the circumstances for this game differ wildly from the first time these two teams faced each other.
Last time, Bridges was playing only his second game in a month. This time, he’s 100% healthy and it’s Penn State whose legs might be dead after their OT game yesterday.
Last time, the game was played at the Palestra in Philadelphia, a city seven different Lions basically grew up in, giving them a significantly bigger home court advantage than they usually have at their actual home court in Happy Valley. This time, it’s a neutral court and a MUCH more indifferent crowd.
Last time, Penn State was above .500 and looking to surprise the Big Ten. This time, MSU should be playing with a desperate sense of urgency and looking for some revenge, to boot.
There are still several factors that could swing this game Penn State’s way. MSU could get out-rebounded by 10 again, the guards could all go missing and they could turn the ball over 20 times. Unfortunately, none of that would surprise.
However, it’s still March, Tom Izzo is still the Head Coach and I’m not picking against him with his back against the wall.