Rutgers men’s basketball heads back on the road to face Penn State on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. ET. The game airs live on the Big Ten Network. The Scarlet Knights defeated the Nittany Lions 65-45 a month ago at the RAC.
The past 4 times that Rutgers and Penn State played a home and home series during the 2017, 2019, 2020 & 2022 seasons, the winner of the first game lost the second game by 1 or 2 points. The Scarlet Knights have also loss their last three visits to Happy Valley.
The most important aspect of this game involves the three-point line.
Penn State leads the Big Ten overall in three-point attempts, makes and percentage. They have made 303 shots behind the arc on 773 attempts for 39.2%. PSU actually shoots slightly better in league play, have made 178 of 446 attempts for 39.9%. They’ve averaged 10.5 three-pointers per game in Big Ten action.
In addition, they lead the conference in shooting 47.3% from the floor.
At the RAC in late January, Penn State was just 4 of 26 from three for 15.4% and 18 of 54 for 33.3% overall. It was their worst shooting performance of the season.
In their last eight games since that night, PSU is shooting 91 of 219 for 41.6% from behind the arc. They’ve made less than 10 threes just once with 9 and haven’t shot worse than 36.8%. Last night, they shot 10 of 19 for 52.6%.
Jalen Pickett will be the best player on the court on Sunday and he’s averaging 18.8 points, 7,3 rebounds, and 6.9 assists. He’s shooting 52.9% from the floor, 39.0% from three and 81.6% from the foul line. His former high school teammate Caleb McConnell has typically defended Pickett well over the years including the first meeting at the RAC last month. He shut Pickett down in the final 10 minutes of the game. Whether he can do it again while nursing his back injury remains to be seen.
Seth Lundy and Andrew Funk are shooting 44.4% and 41.2% from three-point range. Rutgers must make them priorities by always identifying where they are on the floor.
Rutgers has the top defensive efficiency rating in Big Ten play but is 7th in allowing 34.0% from three-point range. The Scarlet Knights are also allowing a league low 41.7% shooting. Of course, in the last five games without Mawot Mag, they’ve proven to be vulnerable inside the arc in allowing opponents to shoot 54.3%.
As for whether RU can keep up from deep, in Big Ten play they’ve made 105 of 319 three-point attempts for 32.9%. They’re averaging 5.8 threes per game. One thing to note is that in the first meeting in Piscataway, Rutgers was just 4 of 13 from deep for 30.8% and they won by 20 points.
The key personality traits for Penn State have a very large swing. They’re first nationally out of 363 teams in turnover rate but in offensive rebounding rate and free throw rate. They’re also 358th opponent turnover rate.
The best things Rutgers does offensively is offensive rebounds and assist rate.
After a disappointing loss to Michigan on Thursday night, this is a massive game for the Scarlet Knights. It’s their last Quad 1 game on the regular season schedule. Penn State is on the NCAA Tournament bubble and RU could be in a similar state soon.
This is a key head to head matchup. If Rutgers could sweep the season series and respond in winning fashion on Sunday, it would be significant both from a metrics perspective and for perception. This game will impact both team’s postseason resumes.
“I told the team afterwards they’ve been down this road before,” head coach Steve Pikiell said after the loss to Michigan. “Paul certainly has and so have all the guys. We’ve got to go on the road and beat a really good Penn State team. It’s just like any other game in this league that’s competitive, challenging and has good coaches. You have to play well. We’ll get right back to work tomorrow.”
Obviously, the starting five of Rutgers needs to carry the load on both ends of the floor. The bench needs to give some level of production as well. After losing four of their last five games, Sunday night is a difficult matchup but also a tremendous opportunity. Playing with energy and focus, closing out on shooters, looking to run in transition and maintaining their poise are all keys to Rutgers winning this game.
It’s also unlikely that Penn State will shoot as poorly in the rematch that they did in the first meeting. Rutgers is going to have to make shots, including from behind the arc. Finishing near the rim, scoring in transition and having Cam Spencer, Paul Mulcahy, Aundre Hyatt and Oskar Palmquist shoot with confidence from three is critical.
On a personal note as a longtime Rutgers fan, I most importantly hope that this team plays really hard, fights through inevitable adversity and plays with a killer instinct.
As for a musical choice, I decided on “Where Is My Mind” by the Pixies. Tremendous song that feels right for this moment. There is no doubt that Rutgers is hurting both physically and mentally. Nothing is coming easy right now. Getting reset for this game and being able to execute at the level they need to in order to win will be extremely difficult. That being said, this team is talented and experienced enough to accomplish that. Playing smart, playing together and being relentless for 40 minutes is important to winning this crucial game.
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