Hard to believe at this late date that the Gophers still haven't played Penn State, but here we are, with these two titans of college basketball about to square off, bubble implications abound. The Nittany Lions sit at 6-7 in conference play and are tied with Minnesota (and Michigan) for sixth in the conference, but while the Gophers are in right now and the Wolverines are starting to trend towards an outside shot at a longshot bid, the Lions are moving in the wrong direction and have ceased to be included on ESPN's Bubble Watch. Basically they'd need a miracle run that would include wins over the Gophers twice, Ohio State, and Wisconsin to get back in. The scary part is I think they can do it.
They already have a win over Wisconsin this year - the clear second best team in the league, and pushed Purdue to the wire at Purdue. They also still have that win over Illinois, which might not mean all that much right now but they were playing well at that time, and a win over Michigan State that will probably look better as time goes on. They also gave the Buckeyes their stiffest non-Wisconsin test so far in conference and did it in Columbus. Simply put, this team can beat, or lose to, any team at any time anywhere. And it all still starts with Talor Battle.
He has some decent help this year, finally, which we'll get to later, but Battle is still that scoring dynamo who can single-handedly win a game for PSU. He can hit the three, get to the rim, hit the mid-range, and get to the line. He can score or set up his teammates, he grabs a ton of rebounds for a little guy, and he's a good defender. To make it worse, he's basically torched the Gophers every time they've played other than one game in his freshman year, and tends to raise his level of play when needed - like when Penn State needs to win out the rest of the year to get him to his first and only NCAA Tournament. I fear what numbers he's going to put up, but based on his success against this team and Nolen still being out I think 35 isn't out of the question.
The good news for the Gophers is that most of his help comes from Jeff Brooks, a 6-8 senior who has made an incredible leap this season, nearly doubling his stats from last year (from 7.4 to 13.6 scoring, from 4.2 to 7.0 rebounding, and from 0.5 to 1.7 blocks all while increasing his field goal percent from .500 to .578). I say this is good news for the Gophers because although Brooks may accidentally wander outside from time to time he's more of your classic banger, and with Sampson, Iverson, and Mbakwe in the paint Brooksy is going to find it tough to operate - just ask Christian Watford, Melsahn Basabe (the second time), or Jordan Morgan.
Outside of those two, Penn State does have some additional players worth looking out for, including two more senior forwards in Andrew Jones and David Jackson. Jones a 6-10, 245 lb. big man who isn't much offensively at just 6.2 points per game, but who can help control the game through his work on the boards. He averages 5.8 per game, good for 12th in the conference, and has hit double-digits twice in conference play including 14 against Wisconsin. Jackson, on the other hand, is more your slasher/shooter, standing at 6-7 and averaging 10.4 points per game while shooting 36% from three. He doesn't completely rely on the three to get his points with less than half his FG attempts from behind the line, but he can use it to light up at opponent - he's hit three 3s in a Big Ten game three times this year. Since I'm not worried about Brooks, Jackson may be the biggest concern behind Battle.
I say maybe because the last guy I want to mention for the Lions is an intriguing sort, and that's sophomore point guard Tim Frazier. Frazier reminds me quite a bit of a taller (6-1) Lewis Jackson - lightning quick with a great ability to penetrate off the dribble and the kind of player we wouldn't worry all that much about if Al Nolen was around. But he's not, so I'm worried. Frazier is more of an assist guy with 4.8 per game on the year compared to 4.8 points per game, but he's gaining confidence and becoming more aggressive. After averaging 3.7 shots per game and 4.6 assists through PSU's first 20 games, he's averaged over 7 shots per game over their last four, increased his assists to 5.8 per game, and has shot 22 of his season total 56 free throws - that's 40% of his attempts in 17% of the games. He's attacking the basket and either scoring, setting up a teammate, or getting fouled. Basically Frazier is peaking right as he's about to play a team that's going to have trouble guarding him. Ungood. I'm looking for a career game here.
As far as team play goes, Penn State is a pretty good offensive team (36th in the country in offensive efficiency), if a bit of a chucker-type team (276th in 3-pt % despite shooting an above average amount of three-pointers), and a decent defensive team with some weaknesses. Unfortunately, their weakness - not forcing turnovers and getting torched from three - are things they don't really have to worry about with the Gophers who will turn it over plenty on their own and couldn't hit a three-pointer (outside of Hoff) if they fell out of a boat.
So what we have here is a desperate team full of desperate seniors who need to basically win out home for those seniors to have a chance to make their only NCAA Tournament appearance at home against a team that historically plays poorly on the road, and one of those seniors is one of the best all-around players in the conference who torches the Gophers regularly when they do have their best defender, a player who is currently out and who is also the only player on the roster who can guard the team's point guard who is gaining confidence and ready to explode into a mini-star. And also the best ways to be sure to beat Penn State - taking care of the basketball and hitting threes - are things the Gophers suck at. So yeah.
Penn State 67, Minnesota 63.