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Michigan State Men’s Basketball Preview: No. 19 Spartans host Penn State

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The Spartans look to remain perfect in Big Ten play against the struggling Nittany Lions.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Penn State
Seth Lundy is the top scorer for the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 19 Michigan State Spartans will entertain the Penn State Nittany Lions for MSU’s Big Ten home opener, and will look to continue their positive trend from recent weeks.

On Wednesday, Tom Izzo’s team started off its conference campaign with a solid road win at Minnesota, and on paper, should expect the same result in this one. The aging Nittany Lions are once again a senior-laden squad with plenty of experience, even if Penn State’s players rarely if ever tasted the high hanging fruits in college basketball. To see if Penn State might steal one from the Breslin Center on Saturday, let’s go into the preview.

Game Information

Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021

2 p.m. Eastern Time

TV: Big Ten Network

Breslin Center, East Lansing, Michigan

The state of Penn State’s program

For many years the Penn State basketball program could refer to a decent amount of stability, as the team’s former head coach, Pat Chambers, was allowed to build his teams through numerous tough tenures and over the course of many recruiting cycles. That long breath finally netted good results with the team winning the 2018 NIT championship, and the Nittany Lions most likely would have made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a long time in 2020 if not for the postseason cancelation due to the COVID-19-pandemic.

Unfortunately for PSU, that was where the sort of fairytale ended. Chambers resigned at the beginning of the following season due to inappropriate remarks he made to talented guard Rasir Bolton. Understandably, the following season under interim coach Jim Ferry didn’t go too well (11-14 overall, 7-12 in the Big Ten) and leaves the program wondering if it will fall back into the old abyss the Lions worked so hard to climb out of. Newly acquired head coach Micah Shrewsberry, a former Purdue assistant under Matt Painter and NBA coach under Brad Stevens in Boston, offers quite a bit of optimism, especially considering Penn State could potentially tap into the talent rich pool of Philadelphia high school basketball nearby. Yet, it also remains a fact that the hoops program clearly plays second fiddle in Happy Valley to the fighting James Franklins of the football team, which is an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time.

How this season went for Penn State so far

Shortly: Not very well, but also not absolutely horrible. PSU is only 5-4 on the season, but the team’s losses really aren’t that terrible outside of a 81-56- shellacking at the hands of UMass. The Nittany Lions played an unbeaten and solid LSU team (KenPom No. 16) tough and only lost by five points, their other losses came against Ohio State by 12 (KenPom No. 20) and by five points versus the Miami Hurricanes (KenPom No. 94). Penn State’s wins aren’t really anything to write home about, though, considering it’s hard to decide if PSU’s best win was beating a 1-8 Oregon State team (KenPom No. 133), a 3-2 Wagner squad (KenPom No. 136) or the mighty impressive 8-2 outfit of Cornell (KenPom No. 228). In comparison, Michigan State had its only losses to two top-four teams in KenPom (Kansas and Baylor) and has three top-50 KenPom wins already (Loyola Chicago, Connecticut and Louisville).

Projected starting lineup

PG Jaheam Cornwall (Sr., 6-0, 175 lbs, 3.9 points, 1.4 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 28.6% FG, 25% 3P)

SG Jalen Pickett (Sr., 6-4, 202 lbs, 11.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 38% FG, 31.1% 3P)

SF Myles Dread (Sr., 6-4, 220 lbs, 6.4 points, 2.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 35.2% FG, 36.7% 3P)

PF Seth Lundy (Jr., 6-6, 218 lbs, 14.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 42.7% FG, 31.6% 3P)

C John Harrar (Sr., 6-9, 240 lbs, 10.9 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 72.2% FG, no threes)

Key reserves

Sam Sessoms (Sr., 6-0, 187 lbs)

Jalanni White (Sr., 6-8, 215 lbs)

Some numbers and tidbits

Shrewsberry tries to build the PSU program on things he learned at his previous stops with Purdue and Boston. Both Matt Painter and Brad Stevens stand for a rather methodical, defense-oriented brand of basketball that looks to make the game uncomfortable for the opponent and gain an advantage by strong execution. So far, the Penn State defense is showing some signs of life (opponents shoot just 40.8 percent against PSU) and is clearly a strong point for the team (ranking a respectable 69th in Kenpom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metrics). The Nittany Lions don’t force turnovers much or block many shots, yet, they still work hard for positioning and in order to deny driving lanes.

NCAA Basketball: Wagner at Penn State
Sam Sessoms provides dynamic scoring for Penn State this season.
Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

On offense it is a different story. The Nittany Lions have a few talented individual players, but the cohesiveness is really lacking as of now, even if they move well without the ball. The Lions run a lot of high screens (many of the easier variety including handoff and basic off ball movement screens) and then try to probe the defense for any holes on the perimeter. Penn State’s big man, John Harrar, plays a key role here as a screener and a focal point at the top of the key. PSU will also give him the ball inside and while his post game is more rudimentary, he is strong as an ox and works extremely hard on the glass. Penn State ranks just 99th in Kenpom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings, and No. 82 overall (Michigan State ranks 21st overall, 52nd on offense and fourth on defense).

Jalen Pickett, a former MAAC Player Of The Year from New York, is a versatile playmaker who has good court vision. Seth Lundy, PSU’s top scorer, is a “tweener” wing who doesn’t shy away from contact and can have dynamic offensive outbursts at times. At 6-foot-6 he takes over five three-pointers per game, though, and gives the Lions good spacing from the four-spot, which in turn is a key for Harrar’s success. Sam Sessoms has started six games for the Nittany Lions so far, and is an aggressive scorer in his own right, probably even their most dangerous offensive player (13.6 points per game, 51.6 percent from the floor). He is not shy about launching the three-ball, shares a lot of the ball handling duties and will get the ball plenty in late clock situations.

So far, PSU has struggled mightily with turnovers (assists-to-turnover ratio of 1:1) and overall offensive execution. With Harrar, the Nittany Lions are a decent rebounding team, but overall lack the size or strength to really make an impact on that front. Their three-point shooting is spotty, even if they have plenty of guys who can get hot for stretches. The Lions don’t like to play fast at all, but occasionally will test when their defense holds strong.

Conclusion

There is no way around it: This is a game that Michigan State has to win at home against an inferior opponent. Shrewsberry is just getting started and it will take him some time to implement his system with his kind of players. Right now, Michigan State’s top-five defense (per Kenpom) seems like too much of a challenge for the undermanned Nittany Lions, and with Penn State’s shorter rotation (similar to Minnesota), the Lions could also be hard-pressed to keep up with the Spartans‘ offensive tempo.