The Aggies take on Penn State tonight in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The game tips off at approximately 8:55 PM and will be televised on TBS. Yesterday, we gave our own preview of the matchup, but we wanted to get the perspective of Penn State fans and observers. So we talked to the guys at Black Shoe Diaries, Penn State’s SB Nation team site, to get their take on the matchup. Let’s see what Bennett, Tim and Eli had to say about the Nittany Lions and what to expect tonight.
How has Micah Shrewsberry turned around the Nittany Lions so quickly, returning to the tournament in just his second season in Happy Valley?
Bennett: Transfer portal - can’t underestimate the impact of Pickett, Funk, and Wynter and the fact that they were experienced players who Micah has been able to coach up on the offensive end. Meanwhile they’re seasoned and smart enough to follow a scouting report and mix things up defensively. Having one of the oldest rosters - add in holdovers Myles Dread and Seth Lundy - in college basketball the last couple of years has been crucial.
Tim: As a coach who had spent years as an assistant at successful college (Butler, Purdue) and NBA (Celtics) teams, Coach Shrews likely gained a perspective on what constitutes a successful team and he went sifting through the transfer portal to find guys who could make immediate impacts such as Jalen Pickett, Cam Wynter, and Andrew Funk in addition to hanging onto key veterans such as Seth Lundy and Myles Dread and putting together his first recruiting class that ranked as the highest in modern program history according to 247 Sports.
Eli: A combination of the right transfers coming in, and solid recruiting out of the gate. The Nittany Lions recruited a top 50 class in his first year, and has another top 50 class coming in this cycle. A number of his first recruits have blossomed this season –namely Kebba Njie, Evan Mahaffey, and Kanye Clary, which helps veterans like Jalen Pickett, Cam Wynter, and Andrew Funk get some time off the floor. Lastly, he was able to build the culture he wanted by convincing key players to stay, starting with John Harrar last season, and continuing with Seth Lundy and Myles Dread this season.
After a tough start to Big Ten play, Penn State got hot down the stretch. What changed in the second half of conference play?
Bennett: They won close games. As previously mentioned, they were an experienced group that understood the ebbs and flows of conference play. At no point, even during the struggles, did anyone feel like this was a bad team - just sometimes flawed. Their ability to refocus and play game-to-game, even possession-to-possession, has been impressive.
Tim: Cam Wynter stepping up in mid-February after essentially getting called out publicly by his coach was the catalyst behind PSU’s incredible run from mid-February to today. After scoring only double figures in Big Ten play twice before the beginning of the run, he has since reached double digits in six of PSU’s last 10 games. Many fans (myself included) were ready to give up on him and were calling for Shrews to replace him with Kanye Clary, a speedy freshman point guard who has a bright future in the progam.
Eli: The ball started bouncing their way, for the most part. They also started getting contributions from more players, which relieved the pressure on the starters to produce everything. This, in turn, allowed said starters to play more loose, knowing that they had someone waiting in the wings to contribute when they needed a rest. This is most evident with Jalen Pickett, who was playing almost all 40 minutes in every game leading up to the winning streak(s).
Jalen Pickett is the star of this team and one of the best guards in college basketball. What is the secret to at least slowing him down?
Bennett: I think the key to guarding Pickett is actually guarding other players. In two losses to Wisconsin, the Badgers used a bigger defender and gave Pickett space. He can shoot the 3-pointer, but he’d rather get to the rim and finish their OR kick to open shooters. Well, in those losses - and it’s a game plan that others have tried to mimic - Pickett has been forced into the post to take tough twos over longer defenders. It’s hard to stay that patient defensively against Pickett’s “booty ball” and that is why other teams (namely Illinois) have been torched by the All-American guard.
Tim: The key to slowing down to Pickett is to either double-team him and force others to beat you, or by putting someone taller and with a similar build that can withstand his “booty ball” as he tries to bump you towards the basket for an easy turnaround baseline jumper.
Eli: Teams have been successful in slowing down Pickett when they shut down the lane. But, the problem with that strategy (foreshadowing!!) is that you can’t just focus on Pickett. The best way to slow him down is to slow the shooters down, because if Pickett sees that the opponent is focusing too much on him, he’ll just dish the ball out to the three, sometimes four people standing outside the arc, waiting for the ball.
Seth Lundy and Andrew Funk are lethal perimeter threats that complement Pickett well. Who else should Aggie fans be watching out for that could play a big factor in this game?
Bennett: Cam Wynter and Myles Dread. Wynter hit back-to-back game winners to close the regular season and keep Penn State’s dwindling NCAA hopes alive. Meanwhile, Dread is the most experienced player in Nittany Lion history and has a penchant for hitting big shots.
Tim: Wynter and Dread are two guys who have really come on, lately. Dread we knew about his three-point shooting potential, but he has been tasked with guarding the opposing team’s 5 a lot of the time and it seems to have taken a toll on his shooting ability, but lately he’s nailed some pretty clutch treys during this incredible run.
Eli: Cam Wynter, Myles Dread, Kanye Clary, and Evan Mahaffey are four people who can go off at any time. Dread is your standard three point shooter. He can make several in a row, and although he’s only 6-foot-4, is often tasked with guarding the 5. That spells trouble for more traditional centers who then have to go out and guard him at the perimeter. Wynter is an all around scorer, who can get his own shot and find others as well. Mahaffey can score, but is a much better defender. Lastly, Clary has come on as of late, and is the kind of traditional “to the basket” point guard that will speed past defenders if you blink too slowly.
Penn State has played a bunch of close games this season, including 4 overtime games. Do you think this experience could give the Nittany Lions an advantage in the tournament?
Bennett: I think that Penn State having played for its tournament life for the past few weeks is mostly an advantage. No matter what the national perception of the Big Ten might be, playing 23 games against that level of competition will certainly have them ready for Thursday night. My only concern is that this senior-laden group will be satisfied having just made the tournament.
Tim: Absolutely. They are a battle-tested bunch at this point and will not panic when things get tight. The benefits of having the most veteran squad according to Kenpom. Shrews is also pretty darned good at drawing up plays out of timeouts, there is a reason why he was Matt Painter’s “offensive coordinator” during the couple of years he was at Purdue right before taking the PSU job.
Eli: It certainly helps. Penn State has been in several “do or die” situations this season, so they won’t be taken by the moment if they find themselves in similar situations in the tournament.
What do you think are Penn State’s keys to victory against A&M?
Bennett: Shoot the 3-pointer well and contain penetration. Penn State is third in the country in 3-point makes, so they’ll need that strength to come through in order to advance. Meanwhile, the Lions will play a small ball lineup a lot over the course of the game. That’s great - but it’s not necessarily a quick group and there were major defensive lapses from the guard spots during that four-game conference losing streak.
Tim: Pickett needs to be able to do his thing, which is penetrate and either score it himself, or drop dimes to his teammates for the open trey. The threes also need to be falling and defensively, PSU needs to limit the second-chance opportunities for A&M by rebounding (which has been hit or miss this season).
Eli: The formula is pretty simple: Shoot the three, defend without fouling, avoid long droughts. These three things have been how Penn State has lost games in the past, and is usually how they win them. Defensive rebounding will also be key, as A&M lives off the glass. Limiting their number of shots is going to go a long way, especially if the threes are falling.
What are your predictions for this game?
Bennett: A close game. That’s all Penn State plays.
Tim: I think this is going to be a pretty evenly-matched game with countless lead changes and should be a great late night thriller to top off the first full day of March Madness. I’m gonna go full homer though, and pick the Nittany Lions to win by 2-3 points.
Eli: It is my duty as a Penn State fan to predict a Nittany Lion victory. But, as my fellow writers have pointed out, I fully expect a closely contested game. Let’s go 68-66 Nittany Lions.