As of tomorrow morning, Welsh-Ryan Ramblings will be taking a break from Wildcat basketball to travel to San Antonio to focus on Wildcat football. As a result, the Penn State game preview is going up now in order to ensure it is posted well enough in advanced of the game to be meaningful. I don’t think posting a preview a few hours before the 11:00 AM start on the 31st would serve much purpose.
The Matchup: Northwestern (8-2) @ Penn State (11-2)
Location: The Bryce Jordan Center (State College, PA)
TV: ESPN2 (11:00 AM, December 31, 2008)
Radio: WGN 720 AM
Fun Fact: Playing Penn State hasn’t been fun for Northwestern in recent years. In fact, the ‘Cats haven’t won at PSU since 2002. Coincidently, the 2001-2002 team was the last NU squad to post a winning record. Come to think of it, I don’t think this is a coincidence.
Penn State enters this game with an 11-2 record (8-1 at home). They were a team who improved drastically over the second half of the Big Ten season last year (7-11 record) and who has high hopes for 2009. Penn State has also been a major thorn in the side of the Wildcats over the last few years. To fully understand if Northwestern has any chance against Penn State it is important to understand what has made PSU successful against the ‘Cats. First, Penn State has in recent years possessed a gigantic rebounding edge. Players like Jamelle Cornley have had no peer on the Wildcat roster. This year that might be different as the Wildcats finally have front court size and rebounding skill in Kyle Rowley and John Shurna. The other major advantage PSU has used against Northwestern is their ability to play a zone defense which effectively spotted NU’s ability to backdoor cut. This was especially successful as Northwestern hasn’t shot well enough in any recent game to get PSU out of their zone. This advantage also might be negated this season as Northwestern features a starting lineup which contains four decent shooters and can bring a shooting center of the bench. This is Northwestern’s biggest positive in this year’s game.
Even if those advantages are negated, though, Penn State still has a very talented team led by Cornley and point guard Talor Battle. Cornley has been a huge problem for the Wildcats in the past and his numbers this year are particularly impressive. He averages 14.9 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game. Those numbers aside, though, I believe it is Battle who will cause more problems for the ‘Cats this time around. NU has enough players performing well in the front court that they ought to at least match Cornley’s production. On the other hand, NU doesn’t have guards who can match Battle’s all around game. Not only does Battle average 18.7 points per game, but he also pulls down 5.7 rebounds per game and has dished out more than 70 assists. Those numbers exceed the production of NU’s Michael Thompson and Craig Moore in every category. The one advantage NU might have, though, is that despite his high rebound totals, Battle isn’t big. If any NU player other than Thompson blocks him out, Battle will be at a major size disadvantage.
NU’s other major problem could be the fact PSU shoots 40.3% from three point land and has a number of capable shooters. The best is guard Stanley Pringle who is at 53%, but guards Danny Morrissey and Cammeron Woodyard off the bench can also shot well, as can Battle and Cornley. NU has played more man-to-man defense this year than in the past and if Coach Carmody believes any of his young big man can matchup with Cornley down low it might be advisable to go man against PSU. If they do not, NU needs to work extra hard on getting hands in shooters faces out of their zone defense. This seems to have been a problem at Stanford.
Prediction: Penn State seems to have a lot of statistical and personnel advantages in this game, but I think most of the intangibles favor NU. The most significant intangible factor is the game being played at a time when Penn State will have no students around and very few fans in State College overall. I also believe that after their play at Stanford and Butler the Wildcats must know they have a lot to prove in regards to their ability to win on the road and compete consistently against better than average teams. Can they do so? I believe they can. I think NU’s young players will step up and the ‘Cats will pull of the upset. Northwestern, 56 Penn State, 50.
Bonus Pick: A lot of people doubt the chances of NU against PSU in hoops, but even more people doubt the chances of NU against Missouri in the Alamo Bowl. Last I saw, ESPN had 87.7% of the nation picking the Tigers. This reminds me of the only other dome game NU played this year. The 'Cats were given no chance to beat Minnesota on the road with Bacher and Sutton out. Yet, NU pulled off the win. I foresee a similar result on Monday night. Northwestern, 34 Missouri, 27.