Saturday, February 27, 2010

Game 29: Northwestern @ Penn State

The Matchup: Northwestern (18-10) @ Penn State (10-17)

Location: Bryce Jordan Center (University Park, PA)

TV: Big Ten Network (11:00 AM CT Sunday February 28th, 2010)
Radio: WGN AM 720

Fun Fact: Northwestern will set a school record for wins with a victory.

About the Game
Everybody knows what happened last time these two teams met. Penn State finally got a conference win and Northwestern’s dream of making the NCAA Tournament ended. Since that meeting Northwestern lost a close game at Wisconsin and beat Iowa. Penn State beat Michigan and lost close game at home against Ohio State. I’d say those results show both teams have played better since their first meeting.

The key in this game will be how Northwestern defends Penn State. Penn State seems to have decoded the 1-3-1 zone as well as any team in the Big Ten, and NU is not always consistently aggressive when playing a matchup, especially against “weaker” opponents. Making things even tougher, Penn State has some very impressive athletes who could give NU trouble when the ‘Cats have to defend them one on one. Forwards David Jackson, Jeff Brooks, and Andrew Jones all played well when Penn State beat Northwestern in Evanston. The 6-7 Jackson was most impressive showing the ability to score inside and hit jump shots. It was his scoring, and not star Talor Battle’s, that in fact paved the way for the Penn State victory. If Northwestern is going to play a matchup, they must make sure whoever is guarding Jackson is capable of not only stopping him in the post, but also aware he needs to be guarded on the perimeter. Penn State scored getting the ball inside not just to Jackson, but Jones and Brooks as well. Basically, they threw the ball over the top of the 1-3-1 and NU couldn’t stop the 6-10 Jones or 6-8 Brooks with 5-10 Michael Thompson. If NU does play 1-3-1, they must do a much better jump pressuring passing lanes or once again Thompson will be caught in an unwinnable mismatch. Realistically, NU probably shouldn’t play the 1-3-1. The ‘Cats caught a semi-break last time because Talor Battle (19.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.0 apg) was suffering from flu-like symptoms and didn’t shoot well. If a totally healthy Battle gets open shots, which the 1-3-1 will allow, he’ll knock them down. Considering Penn State’s other guard, Chris Babb, did knock down shots against the 1-3-1, I think NU might be smart to avoid that defense.

NU used the matchup zone the entire game against Iowa. While Iowa did miss some open shots, NU did a better job not allowing easy looks inside. In addition, one could argue that those open misses occurred because the ‘Cats actually made Iowa work for shots and the Hawkeyes legs were tired so those open threes weren’t as easy to shoot as in Iowa City. Bottom line, NU’s matchup has been very successful this year when NU really commits to using it. For example, the matchup effectively neutralized Purdue. Of course, NU was also fired up to play Purdue and hustled during the whole game. They’ll need to do the same against Penn State because Penn State does have some talented players.

I’m not feeling too great about this game. I liked what I saw on Thursday, but I’m worried Penn State just knows how to beat NU’s defenses too well. To be honest, if I were Bill Carmody, I might scrap the matchup and the 1-3-1 against Penn State and try something else. Maybe true man-to-man or even a Box-and-1 on Battle. Why? Because Penn State has totally dominated NU over the years and I think it would be smart to get them out of the obvious comfort zone they have when facing the ‘Cats. My biggest worry, though, isn’t NU’s defense. It’s the fact that Penn State is at home, and they’ve become a good team. Penn State does have something of a home court advantage, even if it doesn’t always show. Not that their fans are great, but the trip from Chicago to State College is long and unpleasant and often times Northwestern plays like that on game day. Plus, Penn State has to feel some motivation about possibly getting out of the Big Ten basement and some confidence with their chance to do some going against a team they know they can beat. I hope I’m as wrong as last Sunday, but I fear a depressing result. Penn State, 62 Northwestern, 60

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