After a four year drought, Texas A&M makes its long awaited return to the NCAA Tournament as the Aggies face Penn State in the opening round from Des Moines, Iowa. The game will be nationally televised on TBS on Thursday evening with the anticipated tipoff at 8:55 PM CT. Let’s take a look at the Nittany Lions ahead of that matchup to see what we can expect.
Penn State is coached by Micah Shrewsberry, who took over last season after serving as Purdue’s Associate Head Coach for two seasons. Shrewsberry has also spent time at Butler, Marshall, IU-South Bend, and the Boston Celtics. After a 14-17 finish in 2021-22, Shrewsberry has the Nittany Lions back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010-11.
Penn State heads into the tournament with a 22-13 record and a 10-10 mark in Big Ten play. The Nittany Lions went 9-2 in their non-conference slate with a loss to Virginia Tech in the Charleston Classic and a double overtime loss at Clemson. PSU’s most notable non-conference victory was a 73-68 win over Furman at the Charleston tournament; Furman now plays Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament after winning the Southern Conference tournament.
Penn State’s Big Ten slate started in early December with a home loss to Michigan State followed by a road win over Illinois. The Nittany Lions picked up conference play again after the new year, going 4-4 in the month of January. The first two weeks of February were unkind to Penn State as they dropped four consecutive games to fall to 14-11 overall and 5-9 in Big Ten play, leaving their tournament hopes on life support. Then the Nittany Lions caught lightning in a bottle, winning five of their last six regular season games over with four of those wins coming against eventual tournament teams. ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi didn’t have PSU in the field of 68 until March 4 when he listen the Nittany Lions as the last team in.
Penn State’s strong run of form continued into the Big Ten Tournament, where the Nittany Lions beat Illinois, Northwestern, and Indiana to reach the final against Purdue. A epic comeback in the final 6 minutes came up just short, but Penn State had proven themselves worthy of an at-large bid.
Although each season is different, I found a lot of parallels between Penn State and the 2021-2022 Texas A&M teams. Both teams were .500 in conference play, and each had a non-conference strength of schedule that rated 300 or worse nationally (303 PSU vs. 308 ‘21-22 A&M). Penn State finished 22-13, while last season’s Aggies finished 23-12. Again, each season and tournament selection process is different because of the resumes of all teams being considered, but there are a lot of similarities between these two across the different seasons.
The engine for Penn State’s success is Second Team All-American fifth year senior guard Jalen Pickett. He’s clearly one of the best guards in the country and has the stats to back it up. At 6’ 4”, Pickett leads his team in scoring (17.9 PPG), rebounding (7.3 RPG), assists (6.7 APG), steals (34 total), and field goal percentage (51.6%). He also shoots 38.3% from beyond the arc and 77.3% from the free throw line. Pickett transferred to Penn State last season after three years at Siena. Check out these highlights from this season when he dropped 41 on Illinois.
The Nittany Lions also feature two guards who complement Pickett very well in Seth Lundy and Andrew Funk. Lundy is a 6’ 6” guard/forward hybrid who shoots well from distance but also has a great finishing touch around the rim. Funk is a 6’5” pure shooter who can light it up from deep. Lundy shoots 45.4% from the floor,40.6% from three, and 81% from the line while averaging 14.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Funk hits 43.9% from the field, 40.5% from deep, and 85.7% from the stripe while averaging 12.1 points per game.
Penn State’s primary interior presence is 6’10” Kebba Njie. Njie isn’t a major factor on either end of the floor, averaging just 3.4 points and 3.6 boards per game with a total of 17 blocks on the season.
Style of Play
The Nittany Lions rank 17th nationally in offensive efficiency and 99th in defensive efficiency according to kenpom.com. Surprisingly, PSU runs a slower pace than the Aggies, averaging 1.5 fewer possessions per game. Penn State is heavily dependent upon the three pointer, with 47.4% of all field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc. They are a set play oriented offense with a lot of dribble penetration to collapse the defense and create kick-out opportunities for three.
On the defensive side, the Nittany Lions don’t create a lot of turnovers because they don’t take a lot of chances for steals and don’t block many shots. They emphasize keeping their man in front, eliminating open looks, getting a hand in the shooter’s face, and forcing their opponent to make shots. Penn State isn’t a strong offensive rebounding team, but they crash the boards well on defense.
On the defensive side, look for A&M to do what they do with their token 1-2-2 full court press as Penn State brings the ball up to shorten the shot clock. Then the Aggies are going to jump back to man most of the time in the half court set with an occasional trap on your perimeter guards. I expect A&M to use defensive rotations to shut down dribble penetration, setting up to take the charge if you look to attack the rim. On the kick-out/rotation, the Aggies will be anticipating the pass and looking for the steal, then closing out the shooter and getting a hand in their face to prevent the open look.
From an offensive perspective, I expect A&M to get inside quite a bit. The lack of size for Penn State should create ample opportunities to score or draw the foul. The rebounding battle will be interesting when A&M is shooting because the Aggies have become quite adept on the offensive glass, while Penn State is a great team at eliminating second chances.