Penn State has struggled at times during a difficult non-conference slate with games at Maryland and versus Indiana sprinkled in for good measure. As of last night, the Nittany Lions have the 8th ranked nonconference strength of schedule in the country. Their win over Virginia Tech, and their closer-than-it-looked loss to a talented NC State team proved that they can hang with the best of them.
And then you have a performance like the first-half of the Duquesne, where the team looked out of sorts and disinterested. With just a day off in between, how will the team respond as they travel to take on the Crimson Tide?
These two programs do not have much of a history, their last meeting coming in 1982 – a triple-overtime thriller in Rec Hall which saw Alabama leave with the win. The Crimson Tide lead the all-time series 3-1, but the Nittany Lions have a chance to even the record with a home-and-home series this year and next.
Initially what jumps out for Alabama is their offensive rebounding and rate of getting to the free throw line. Penn State has been inconsistent on the glass at times, but they have the ability to win the match-up when Watkins is playing and the rest of the team is helping to box out. Bama’s FTA rate (Free Throw Attempts / Field Goal Attempts) is an alarming 47.5, good enough for the 11th in the country, and a cause for concern with the way Penn State plays defense. The silver lining is they are shooting just 68% from the FT line, just a smidge above PSU’s 67%. The upperclassmen will need to avoid early foul trouble.
Freshman guard Kira Lewis Jr. leads Alabama in scoring thus far, averaging 15.6 points per game. He’s so far lived up to his recruiting profile as one of the top point guards in the country, and Jamari Wheeler will be tasked with forcing him out of his comfort zone on offense. The Crimson Tide’s scoring is more evenly distributed than Penn State’s, while they have three players averaging double-figures, they have seven who are capable of scoring 10+ on any given night.
Center Donta Hall is coming off a 21-point performance against Liberty earlier in the week, and it will be crucial for Watkins and Harrar to find a way to defend him without fouling. Forward Alex Reese and guard John Petty are two others who are capable of filling up the stats sheet, although both have been mediocre from 3-pt range shooting 34% and 33% respectively. As a team, the perimeter game is not a strength, with Lewis Jr. the primary threat from long range. They’ll look to attack inside, rebound, and score off second-chance opportunities.
Can Lamar stay on the court? The Nittany Lions star has been limited in last two games due to foul trouble early in the first half. There’s no question that the team is much better when he’s on the floor, as he is almost always a match-up advantage for Penn State. He especially needs to avoid offensive and off-ball fouls so he can play without constantly thinking of his foul count.
Rebounding – As I mentioned above, Alabama does a good job on the glass, and this should be an area that the team focuses on heading into the game. On the road, second-chance points and extended possessions can be a killer; not to mention the fatigue factor of defending extra possessions.
Freshman Support – Rasir Bolton has been on fire lately (outside of his turnovers against Duquesne), but Penn State needs either Myles Dread or Myreon Jones to contribute as well. Dread hit three straight 3s, which hopefully will break him out of his slump. Jones is returning to his home state, and will be eager to make his presence felt.
It’s easy to see either team leaving with the win. If Penn State is able to shoot nearly as well as they did versus Duquesne, but limit turnovers and not send Alabama to the line every possession, they’ll come away on top. On the other hand, if Lamar or Josh pick up two quick fouls and the 3-point shots don’t fall… you might want to find something else to do with your Friday night. In a toss-up, I’ll go with the good guys. Penn State 77, Alabama 74