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Rutgers and Penn State set for another battle



Photo credit Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve long thought that Rutgers and Penn State is one of the best and also most under appreciated rivalries in the Big Ten. It’s because it was born many years before when the two schools were conference foes in the Atlantic 10. Three of the last seven meetings have been decided by 1 point. The 80th meeting on Tuesday night should be another tightly contested battle. The game will tip-off at 6:30 p.m. ET airing live on the Big Ten Network.

Rutgers (23-6; 5-3) is No. 20 in KenPom, No. 126 in offensive efficiency and No. 4 in defensive efficiency. PSU (13-6; 4-4) is No. 38 in KenPom, No. 26 in offensive efficiency and No. 87 in defensive efficiency.

Penn State has a fascinating team profile. They are the oldest team in college basketball as each player has an average 3.99 years of division I experience.

Offensively, they are No. 1 in offensive turnover rate at 13.1%, No. 6 in three-point shooting at 39.4%, No. 10 in effective field goal percentage at 56.0%, No. 16 in free throw shooting at 77.7% and No. 65 in two point shooting at 53.1%. However, PSU is No. 361 with an offensive rebounding rate of 17.9% and No. 362 with a 19.2% free throw rate.

Defensively, the Nittany Lions are No. 49 in limiting foes on the offensive glass at 25.1%, No. 56 in two-point defense in limiting opponents to 46.5% shooting, and No. 57 in defensive free throw rate at 25.8%. However, they have a defensive block rate of just 6.6% for No. 290 and a defensive turnover rate of 14.8% which is No. 352.

Jalen Pickett is one of the best players in college basketball and in all four major categories: 17.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.7 assists, and 1.1 steals. He is shooting 50.6% from the floor, 35.0% from behind the arc and 80.4% from the foul line. In his last 42 games, he’s failed to score double digits just five times. That includes Penn State’s last trip to the RAC in the regular season finale last season. He was held to just 7 points on 3 of 9 shooting after scoring 15 points in Happy Valley earlier that winter.

Pickett is even better this season and how Rutgers defends him will be fascinating to watch. Nebraska and Indiana double teamed him at times. He finished with just 12 points in both games, but PSU won them because their two best three-point shooters, Andrew Funk and Seth Lundy, made a ton of threes. With Caleb McConnell having three inches on Pickett, he seems like a natural choice to defend him once again after doing a pretty good job on him last season. However, Pickett plays bigger than 6’4″ and likes to back defenders down into post, so perhaps Mawot Mag will get an opportunity if they chose to switch or double.

Pikiell will likely mix up what they do regardless but how they focus on Pickett will impact their overall approach. Collapsing on drivers with ball pressure and double teams leaves Rutgers exposed on the perimeter. We saw how Iowa and Michigan State exposed the defense with ball movement and kick outs. In addition to Funk and Lundy, who are both shooting over 42% on 100+ attempts from behind the arc, Myles Dread is also right above 42% on 92 attempts. Cameron Wynter is shooting 35.2% on 54 attempts. The likelihood that a shooter will be open if RU drops to pressure seems at best a 50/50 proposition.

Will Rutgers employ a full court press that has created issues for teams? PSU is excellent in protecting the basketball, but they also haven’t dealt with the Scarlet Knights relentless defense. It’s really the story of the game. How well can RU limit what Penn State does best, which is shoot the three?

For Rutgers, they need to win the battle on the boards and take advantage of second chance scoring opportunities. They grabbed 18 offensive boards in the loss to MSU, but only converted those into 15 second chance points. Attacking the paint and getting to the foul line is key as well. RU can’t get three happy and try to keep pace with Penn State. They need to share the basketball and make the Nittany Lions defend half court possessions. Make it a physical battle.

Getting Cliff Omoruyi involved early is important as well. He has been a force on the boards but struggled to get going offensively until the Michigan State game. Penn State doesn’t have an answer for his post presence and he needs to be assertive without being overly aggressive. Getting him in foul trouble is likely a priority for the Nittany Lions.

Another key is Rutgers not turning it over. PSU is not strong with takeaways, but RU can’t afford to give them extra scoring chances and transition opportunities which could lead to open threes. Dominate the defensive glass and look to run. The more they can get the Nittany Lions in retreat and on their heels, the better.

Cam Spencer getting back on track along with Aundre Hyatt will be largely dependent on how they shoot from behind the arc. This is a game I think Paul Mulcahy needs to be assertive both in finding them good looks along the perimeter, as well as look to score in his own right. Him working pick and roll action with Cliff and also Cam is key in getting the ball in the right players hands tonight.

Rutgers has gotten some much needed rest and will play for the first time in five days. This will be PSU’s third game in eight days.

Defending without fouling is key in keeping Penn State off the foul line. In addition, Rutgers needs to make up the three point differential with taking advantage of the foul line.

For this game I chose “Like Exploding Stones” by Kurt Vile. Good song by an under appreciated musician. Every made three-pointer by Penn State is going to feel like an exploding stone. It’s all about weathering the storm and contesting as many shots from behind the arc as possible. This team is experienced enough to stay composed. Of course, starting well and being in the game defensively from the start is hugely important.

PSU pretty much makes at least 8 threes a game. It’s a matter of how many attempts do they need to meet that amount or exceed it. The made 18 of 31 three-pointers against Indiana two weeks ago. They made 11 of 30 against Nebraska on Saturday. They can explode from deep. On the flip side, Rutgers needs to at least make a few. Stay the course, fight through adversity and try to wear Penn State down with their physicality.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. pj43

    January 24, 2023 at 8:28 pm

    Since Rutgers basically lives or dies based on their defensive performance, maybe it should begin the game with a straight up man to man defense, with McConnell on Pickett, and forgo the double team in order to defend the kick out pass for open 3pt looks.  I’d like to see a concerted effort on offense to get the ball to Omoruyi inside early and often.  The PSU HC has done a great job with his team since his arrival and they’ll surely come in with a good game plan.  This is a game where Rutgers needs to defend the home court with a quick start and keep the defensive pressure on for the entire game.  Hopefully, the half court offense will not go into a multi minute snooze and do its part to contribute to a win.

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